People gathered inside pubs and restaurants yesterday to enjoy a pint, a meal and a chat. Yet today in maternity hospitals all over the country, women will miscarry alone; attend important scans and appointments alone; even give birth alone.
When Nphet advised the Government that indoor dining could not proceed as planned on July 5, and vaccine passports were required to fully reopen hospitality, a new strategy was hurriedly developed. Ministers held continuous high-level meetings with various stakeholders, required staff in the attorney-general’s office to work late nights and weekends and rapidly published new legislation and convoluted regulations to get doors open.
There was no evidence of the same level of frenetic activity when, on May 10, Nphet advised there was “no good reason in public health terms why [maternity] restrictions continue to be in place”. All we had, in response to that categoric statement, was an exchange of limp correspondence – between senior HSE officials and hospital management teams – and a succession of assurances from Health Minister Stephen Donnelly the restrictions would be lifted imminently.
The minister was wrong. Repeatedly. On June 21, Mr Donnelly went so far as to say that every maternity hospital in the country would be following the same guidelines by the end of the day. Predictably, that promise was swiftly broken.
I have raised this issue for months in the Dáil: with the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste; the Minister for Health and junior Ministers for Health. The response is always different. This suggests the restrictions, which are causing such trauma to expectant parents, are not being discussed at a senior level. If they were, the excuses for the repeated failure to lift them would at least be consistent. In April, when I asked Leo Varadkar about the continuation of the restrictions, he told me “bringing unvaccinated people into a hospital is a risk”. However, I have recently been contacted by numerous couples, both partners fully vaccinated, who have been told vaccination makes no difference. Fully vaccinated partners are still being denied entry to maternity hospitals all over the country.
Ministers may talk about a vaccine bonus, but the only one in evidence today is the one that enables you to sip a pint or enjoy a three-course meal indoors. There is no vaccine bonus for pregnant women.
For more than a year, women have been alone when they received the news that their babies’ heartbeats could not be detected; when they suffered miscarriages; when they had stillbirths; or when they received a diagnosis that their babies had serious life-limiting or life-threatening conditions. Even women in the early stages of pregnancy who have yet to attend a hospital appointment are anxious because they don’t know when these restrictions will really end.
According to the Psychological Society of Ireland, the exclusion of partners from maternity hospitals is having a negative impact on women’s mental health. It stated that birthing partners “provide vital emotional and physical support for women… during scans and appointments, as well as during labour”. The ban on partners is especially difficult for first-time mothers, who are nervous about giving birth, and those who have suffered miscarriages or perinatal loss, who “often experience significant anxiety and a re-activation of post-traumatic stress”.
The restrictions are also hugely difficult for partners, who are unable to be present for what should be some of the happiest moments of their lives. When tragedy occurs, the sense of loss becomes even more acute when couples cannot grieve together. One man who contacted my office spoke of his anguish at having to remain outside while his wife miscarried inside the hospital. He had driven his heavily bleeding and traumatised partner to the hospital and had been told to leave. Unable to physically comfort his wife, he spent hours driving aimlessly.
Adding to the upset is the sense the restrictions are unnecessarily punitive and entirely arbitrary. Bizarrely, nobody can give an adequate answer as to why these restrictions are still in place – and for how much longer they will remain.
Perhaps the problem is a perceived lack of political power. Women, unlike pubs and restaurants, do not have a lobby group and are therefore very low on the list of this Government’s priorities. As we have seen with the reopening of indoor hospitality, it is only when restrictions have a pronounced economic impact that Ministers can be moved to act decisively.
There is also a view from some that women should just get on with it. That childbirth is natural and they should quietly endure their lonely pregnancies, and any traumatic complications that arise, without complaint. It is hard to avoid characterising this apparent determination to make women needlessly suffer as anything other than misogynistic and cruel.
The story of maternal healthcare in Ireland is the story of how we have treated women in this country: how they have been neglected, disdained and infantilised. Those days are over. Women may not have a lobby group, but they can vote. The Government should remember this.
Holly Cairns TD is the Social Democrats’ spokeswoman for agriculture, disability and social justice