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Single mothers were forcibly sterilised in Sweden. We don't hear much about that.


People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies. PA

People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies. PA

People leave candles and mementos during a march and candlelit vigil from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies. PA

When the inquiry into the Magdalene homes was announced a couple of years ago I wrote a column challenging three myths about them. The first is that they were an Irish phenomenon only. They were not.

The second is that they were Catholic only. They were not. The third is that they were chiefly for unmarried mothers. They were not. The subsequent McAleese report backed all of this up.

With respect to our mother and baby homes similar myths are taking hold, chiefly that they were a particularly Irish and particularly Catholic phenomenon. They were not.

In particular what has taken root is the notion that Ireland, once the most Catholic country in Western Europe, was also a living nightmare, chiefly because of the church's teachings on human sexuality – not a utopia, but its opposite, a dystopia.

It is true that Irish Catholicism was once in the grip of a spirituality that laid for too much emphasis on sin and punishment but it is not true to say that what we did to single mothers was uniquely Irish or uniquely Catholic.

Single mothers were treated appallingly almost everywhere.

For example, Britain had mother and child homes from the 1890s until the 1960s. The first ones were established by the Salvation Army.

The website motherandbabyhomes.com describes well the philosophy behind them. It says: "Premarital pregnancy was heavily stigmatised and provoked issues around sex, morality, religion and authority both parental and community. While there were women who birthed and raised their illegitimate children, there were many who were feared (sic) to have brought shame upon the family and quickly ushered into the confines of a Mother and Baby Home to hide their pregnancies. Often orchestrated by social workers, or parents of the young woman, many were pressured into giving their children up for adoption with an all-time peak in 1968 of adoption orders granted in England, 16,164 in all."

Every bit of that should be very familiar to us and alone shows that our attitude to single mothers was not uniquely or even particularly Irish or Catholic.

But perhaps we can expect to find a better attitude elsewhere. What about the Swedish welfare paradise? Surely there single mothers and their children were treated in an enlightened manner?

In Sweden the 'solution' was to sterilise unmarried mothers. They also made some have abortions. They also had institutions in which abuse was widespread. The policy of sterilising unmarried mothers was explicitly a Social Democratic policy and lasted from the mid-1930s until the mid-1970s.

It was a form of eugenics. The mentally handicapped were sterilised and so were tens of thousands considered to be guilty of 'asocial' behaviour. That category included unmarried mothers.

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'Asocial' types were considered to be a threat to a well-functioning welfare state. They were offered financial inducements to be sterilised, but victims of the policy have testified that they were sometimes forcibly sterilised and made to have abortions.

Try to imagine these stories on the Irish airwaves. Try to imagine women describing how the Irish State had sterilised them so that they could have no more children, even after they married, and in some cases had aborted the only child they would ever have.

Now try to make the story stick that our treatment of unmarried mothers was somehow particularly Irish and particularly Catholic.

Ask yourself also why so few people know that tens of thousands of Swedes (95pc of them women) were sterilised as a result of a policy designed to eliminate 'asocial' behaviour. Ask yourself why the international media hasn't given this the same obsessive and hysterical coverage it has given to the Tuam babies story, one that has been exaggerated in many cases out of all proportion?

When a given country and a given religion are constantly singled out and their sins held up before the world in this way, we have a right to ask why this is so.

Why is it so? Other countries have had terrible scandals. Other countries treated unmarried mothers and their children appallingly. Other religions had the same attitude to unmarried mothers, and very secular, social democratic countries like Sweden were ruthless towards them.

Why does it suit so many people, here and overseas, to paint Catholic Ireland as a dystopia, something on a par with Stalin's Russia or Pol Pot's Cambodia and why are our politicians, including Enda Kenny so inclined to go along with this?

What is also incredible is that some of the same people who are waxing most indignant about the mother and child homes think an equivalent scandal today is the fact that 4,000 Irish women have to travel to England each year for abortions. But that is how we deal with unwanted children today; we abort them, and many of us want them to be aborted on Irish soil in the name of 'choice'. There are no graves, marked or unmarked for these children. So we should not be proud of how we deal with unwanted children today and we should not be proud of the fact that we often prefer abortion to adoption. We are to have the inevitable and necessary inquiry into the homes. But it cannot simply focus on church-run mother-and-baby homes. It must also look at the county homes. In addition, it must look at how other countries dealt with unmarried mothers and their children for the sake of fairness.

That is to say, the inquiry must be properly rounded, not driven by an agenda and give us real insights into how we should deal today with 'inconvenient' children.