On 12 January, the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was published. The report runs to some three thousand pages, and no one in the Minimise Project has managed to read it in its entirety yet. However, we have read enough of the executive summary and the report itself, along with media reports of the views and experiences of survivors of these ‘homes’ (we hesitate to use that term) to know that much of what went on in these homes in the far-too-recent past was truly devastating.
In one home, the infant mortality rate was nine times that in the general population. It is well known that many of these babies, in Tuam and elsewhere, were not even afforded the dignity of a proper burial. When women and girls arrived at the homes pregnant as a result of rape or statutory rape, those crimes often went completely unreported. And then, of course, there was the cold, harsh, and abusive treatment that many survivors received in the homes themselves.
As pro-life people, we have a grim reality that we must face: this report is yet another reminder that the Ireland of the past was completely inconsistent when it came to protecing the rights of unborn babies. To treat pregnant women with such disdain, to discriminate against and abuse them in such a widespread and blatant manner, simply because they were pregnant under the ‘wrong circumstances’, is the polar opposite of what the pro-life movement is about. We can’t protect unborn babies without protecting their mothers. To neglect and abuse pregnant women is also to neglect and abuse the babies they are pregnant with. This harsh reality is one we should not shy away from, much as we might want to. It is one we must face head on.
Even before this report was released, it was clear to everyone in the Minimise Project that Ireland was not a welcoming place for pregnant women in general and unmarried pregnant women in particular. It is in part for this reason that none of us wants to simply rewind the clock to pre-repeal Ireland. We want instead to bring Ireland to somewhere much better, a truly pro-life society, rather than a society that simply bans abortion. There are many changes that Ireland needs to make in order to become a pro-life society, and the law is just one of them. Most changes, however, are societal and cultural. And this is where we can really learn from the message of the Commission’s report.
One of the more controversial claims in the report was that ‘Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of [the women’s] children and their own immediate families.’ The idea that society at large, rather than the State and the religious institutions running the homes, bore primary responsibility for the harsh treatment of women in mother and baby homes is not generally accepted, not least by many of the survivors of these homes. However, regardless of who bears primary responsibility, it is a fact that society at large discriminated against unmarried mothers and their children, and treated them appallingly. (That the Irish Catholic (and Protestant) Churches and the state treated pregnant women so badly is a terrible indictment of those institutions. But this claim is compatible with the claim that society at large – the ordinary families, friends, employers and fellow citizens of these women – also terribly wronged them.) One of the things pro-life people can do in response to this report is take a good hard look at our treatment of mothers today.
Thankfully, we no longer banish women whose pregnancy occurs under socially unacceptable circumstances to workhouses. However, that does not mean that we don’t disparage and even discriminate against women who have babies at the ‘wrong time’, under the ‘wrong circumstances’, or even at all. The disapproval takes the not-so-subtle form of
‘Oh, really? You’re pregnant again? That’s awfully soon! Oh congratulations, of course!’
‘Oh congratulations! Delighted for you. We’re hoping to start trying soon, but we want to get more settled job-wise and also want to get the kitchen done up first. You didn’t think of doing the same?’
‘You do know where they come from, right?’
(For what it’s worth, the above have all been said to me (Muireann) or to people I know).
Women often genuinely fear for their jobs when pregnant, not because they’ll be fired, which is illegal, but because they’re afraid their contract may not be renewed, or they may be passed over for promotion, or they may mysteriously stop getting new challenging projects and instead get passed the donkey work that their other, often male, colleagues don’t want to do. Teenagers who are pregnant feel unwelcome at school, especially ‘respectable’, middle-class schools that aren’t attended by Girls Like That. These are all forms of prejudice against and stigmatisation of pregnant women – and they’re all drivers of abortion. It’s disgusting, but true.
If we learn anything from the Commission’s report, it’s that for far too long in Ireland, no one challenged the status quo, and pregnant women and their babies suffered for it. Whether or not challenging the status quo was in any way realistic or feasible in previous decades is in dispute, but challenging the status quo today is something every pro-life person should do, without hesitation. We must challenge the toxic, sneering culture of covert disapproval that tells women they are irresponsible, incompetent, or otherwise wrong to do the unthinkable and reproduce. We must challenge anyone, pro-life or pro-choice, who responds to news of a pregnancy with anything other than sincere joy. (And as the old phrase goes, if you’ve nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all). We cannot allow ourselves to gloss over the ugly aspects of pre-repeal Ireland. We have to acknowledge them, reject them, and move to somewhere much better.
Muireann, Ciara, and Ben