Uncovering the truth about concealed pregnancies
No one over a certain age can ever forget the name Ann Lovett. I was the same age as Ann was when the tragic story broke - and it is forever etched on my memory.
It was a shameful episode in our country's social history.
At just 15 years old, Ann left her school in Co Longford on a wet and windy day and made her way to the local grotto, where she gave birth to a baby boy under a statue of the Virgin Mary.
She was found several hours later, her stillborn infant wrapped in her coat. Ann died shortly after being brought to hospital.
The story became international news. We began to question what kind of a society could make a lovely young girl feel so isolated and fearful that she felt she couldn't ask for help. I knew a girl around that time who hid her pregnancies from everyone. She gave birth at home to the shock of her unsuspecting family.
Thankfully, 30 years on, Ireland is now a different country. We have moved on, grown, modernised. The country is no longer in the grip of the Catholic Church.
We are more open about sex and sexuality. There is less judgment and discrimination towards teenage pregnancies.
It is compulsory for schools to provide sex education, same-sex couples can be legally recognised through civil partnerships and the morning-after pill is available over the counter.
And yet… a major new research programme is being run to understand why so many women in Ireland are still concealing their pregnancies. Two weeks ago, baby Maria was discovered in a field near Rathcoole in Dublin. The baby was found wrapped in a blanket and plastic bag.
It is for this reason that researchers and experienced midwives in the School of Nursing and Midwifery in TCD have undertaken the 'Keeping it Secret' study.
They believe that concealed pregnancies are not, in fact, a thing of the past from the era of the mother and baby homes, they are an ongoing situation for many women in Ireland today. They believe this is a situation that still needs our attention and understanding
Sylvia Murphy Tighe, HRB fellow and midwifery doctoral student and Professor Joan Lalor, associate professor from the School of Nursing and Midwifery in Trinity, describe a concealed or hidden pregnancy as a situation where a woman hides her pregnancy and keeps it secret from her family and social network.
This can lead to delayed or no antenatal care, negative health outcomes or tragic consequences such as maternal or neonatal death.
Various research studies in Ireland have shown that many women continue to conceal their pregnancies for a variety of reasons. These studies have placed the numbers of concealed pregnancies between one in 403 (rural Ireland) and one in 625 cases (Dublin) where the pregnancy has been concealed up to 20 weeks.
A 2012 case control study by the National University of Ireland, Galway found the prevalence rate even higher at one in 148 cases.
Murphy Tighe said: "Women are still keeping pregnancies secret in Ireland today and we need to get an understanding of the complex reasons behind this phenomenon so that we can respond more effectively."
It's not just frightened teenagers who are hiding their bumps, the reasons for hiding pregnancies are vast and varied. The reasons for concealment can include financial concerns, cultural and/or religious influences, power and dynamics in the relationship, domestic abuse, the lack of a partner or boyfriend, parental opinion and age.
Ms Murphy Tighe described the broad profile of women who conceal pregnancies. "Our research and the experience of midwives, social workers and GPs have confirmed that women of all ages may keep their pregnancy secret," she said.
The study aims to highlight the problem and put in place care pathways for women who wish to keep their pregnancy secret while also being able to access support and antenatal care.
Professor Lalor said: "For too long healthcare professionals have shaped policy. It is now time to hear the voices and experiences of women so we can respond more effectively, help shape policy and assist in the development of care pathways for women in Ireland today."
It's sad to think that more than 30 years on from the tragic death of Ann Lovett, some women are still afraid to admit they are pregnant.
While the reasons for concealed pregnancies are varied and the ages of the women, wide-ranging, all women who find themselves pregnant, no matter what the circumstances, deserve to have somewhere to go where they can access medical advice and proper antenatal care.
No one wants a mother to feel that there is no other option but to wrap her baby in a plastic bag and leave it in a field. We have to protect our mothers and babies and keep them safe.