Pregnant women still treated like children
History shows that the State has a poor record when it comes to its care of mothers and babies, says Carol Hunt
It's like a cruel version of Groundhog Day. Once again we are wondering how a young, healthy woman in early pregnancy can die in an Irish maternity hospital. Once again we are sending a husband, who has fled abroad to the comfort of his family, heartfelt condolences and promises of an investigation into the death of his young wife in an Irish maternity hospital. Once again we are sympathising with distraught parents about the death of their babies (in Cavan hospital last week), and promising to find out the truth; to do better; to try to ensure that such tragedies are averted whenever possible. Once again, Irish women have an awful, stomach-churning fear that this is no country for pregnant women.
How are we still here? It's over half a century since the combined forces of the Irish Medical Association (IMA) and the Catholic hierarchy put a stop to women having control over their pregnancies when they prevented Dr Noel Browne's Mother and Child Scheme being introduced.
It was not, as is sometimes represented, a case of Church versus State - most of our elected representatives being firmly on the side of the Church - but rather the refusal of both church and medics to give up their control over women's bodies.
Fifty odd years later, they still refuse to do so. We have a cultural legacy of controlling women's bodies, and while tragedies will always occur - despite the best care and treatment by professionals - Irish women are increasingly worried that the care they receive in Irish maternity hospitals is not of the standard we should expect and most certainly deserve.
Many women who have been through the obstetrician-led Maternity and Infant Care Scheme (Mics), which has operated in Irish hospitals since 1954, know that the wishes and wants of the staff or the ideology of religious-run hospitals take precedence over what she feels or knows is best for her or her child.
When an Irish woman becomes pregnant it would seem that she loses control over her mental facilities, her ability to make rational decisions, and consequently she must be controlled by others. Last year Mark Kelly, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said that Ireland is not a State "where the autonomy and bodily integrity of women is respected".
The history of Irish treatment of pregnant women since the foundation of the State is truly despicable; both cruel and shameful. This is the country where "unmarried" mothers were incarcerated against their wishes, their babies taken from them and sometimes even sold to foreign families; a country where women had their pelvises broken to satisfy religious ethos; a country where teenagers can be refused the morning-after pill at their local pharmacy; a country where the life of a woman is given equal status to that of a zygote within her womb.
Yet for a country that so defiantly asserts it is pro-the-life of both mother and baby, it has a poor record when it comes to the care of both.
Firstly, there is a chronic shortage of staff, particularly of midwives, in Irish maternity units. In 2014, the Association for Improvement in Maternity Services Ireland (AIMSI) described the shortage as "grossly inadequate and unsafe". Secondly, our system is not "woman centred", despite the National Maternity Strategy 2016-2026, published early this year, promising to "place women very firmly at the centre of the service". But, as former HSE manager Dr Jacky Jones pointed out, it is "uneasily stuck somewhere between the old-style active management of labour model which women have endured for five decades and the 'modern-day' services recommended by HIQA in its 2013 report into the death of Savita Halappanavar".
Thirdly, the ethos of the Catholic Church still holds sway in many of our maternity units, preventing treatments that are not illegal but are refused to women if they go against Catholic ethos. For instance, in 2006 the Lourdes hospital inquiry report revealed that the "prohibition on sterilisations" gave rise to what were called "compassionate hysterectomies". When in 2001 the Sisters of Mercy sold the Mater Hospital to the State, they insisted that its Catholic ethos be maintained. This was an ethos which had led to the Mater banning HIV-prevention information from its Aids unit in the 1990s.
There is currently very understandable concern about St Vincent's Hospital, which is owned by the Sisters of Charity (and receives over €200m each year from State coffers), controlling the ethos of the National Maternity Hospital when it transfers there. As Dr Peter Boylan said: "There are serious challenges when it comes to things like tubal ligation, IVF services, abortion, gender reassignment surgery, etc. None of these are allowed in Catholic-controlled hospitals around the world and it's a puzzle as to why the nuns, or religious Sisters of Charity would want to be involved."
But, of course, we know why they want to be involved. Despite increased secularisation in Ireland, the Catholic Church is clinging steadfastly onto the two areas of public life where they still have immense power; schools and hospitals, education and health - where they still wield control over minds and bodies.
Which of course brings us to the Eighth Amendment to our constitution. The article which equates the life of an Irish woman to that of a zygote in her womb; the article which has caused much hurt, trauma, sadness, and even death to Irish women. Last week, Enda Kenny made the astonishing claim that, in three referenda, "the people, not the party, decided to keep the Eighth Amendment in the constitution". As a woman who has been adversely affected by this amendment in the past - as have so many other Irish women - I have to put my hand up and say that I have never been given the opportunity to vote to keep or repeal the Eighth Amendment. And I would very much like to - if not for my benefit then for my daughter and her peers, some of whom now fear becoming pregnant in this country.
If our politicians would give up the condescending nonsense that is the suggested "civic forum" and allow a democratic vote on this subject, it would go a long way to persuading us that they believe Irish women are adults who have the right to make their own choices, unlike the current system which treats us like irrational, irresponsible children.