05:22, October 02 72 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-02 05:22:03
Views from the NHS frontline  
 Pregnant in Ireland: 'I had no control and was made to feel ashamed'

I had my first antenatal appointment in Ireland three years ago. I was about six weeks pregnant. Like most first time mothers I was consumed by questions: when would I feel movement? When would I have my first scan? What were my birth options? My enthusiasm was met with gentle condescension by my doctor.

They explained that most women wouldn’t even know they were pregnant at this stage and that it certainly wasn’t recommended to tell anyone other than my partner and maybe a few close family members until I was at least 12 weeks into the pregnancy. I changed the subject, struggling to conceal my embarrassment.

I had been training for a long distance run and I asked if it would be safe to continue. This time the condescension wasn’t quite so gentle. I was told that it wasn’t all about me anymore. My doctor had two patients now and that’s how they had to treat it. “What if something happened? You’d never be able to forgive yourself”. Now I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I didn’t ask any more questions after that.

It was only later I reflected on the irony of the situation, that I could have my connection to my pregnancy so trivialised while simultaneously being shamed for my allegedly callous disregard for my unborn child. This is the bizarre cruelty of pregnancy in Ireland.

Frequently, women who miscarry receive virtually no support in Ireland and can even be subject to ridicule. One mother I know described being completely dismissed by her GP after suffering two miscarriages: “He became irritated and said that if it weren’t for overly sensitive pregnancy tests, I wouldn’t have even known I was pregnant,” she said. “Afterwards I always felt like I should apologise when telling people, in case I offended them somehow by oversharing.”

Our society does not perceive miscarriage as bereavement. The 12-week rule implies we don’t even want to know about early pregnancy, just in case we might have to acknowledge the profound loss many experience when they miscarry. Yet under Irish law the right to life of the unborn is equal to that of the mother.

As such pregnant women in Ireland are of equal worth as something our society values so little as to render it virtually invisible in those first 12 weeks. How can women be respected as full and equal members of society when their lives are devalued in such a way? The simple answer is: they can’t.

We have seen the harrowing consequences of the eighth amendment for women including Savita Halappanavar and Miss Y. When such cases occur they are lamented by government representatives as tragic anomalies and we are reassured with the mantra that Ireland is one of the safest places in the world to give birth.

Must women suffer grievous physical or psychological trauma, even death, before their discrimination is noteworthy?

The truth is that due to the eighth amendment, women in Ireland do not retain the right to informed consent or refusal of treatment during pregnancy and birth. The eighth amendment ensures state control, not only of the right to a termination, but of bodily integrity, treatment and information. As a result the care received can be subject to medical convenience or the moral judgement of professionals.

While pregnant with her first son at the age of 38, another mother I know was concerned about the risk of Down’s syndrome: “I wanted to be able to prepare myself emotionally, as well as in practical terms, so I asked my GP to send me for a nuchal fold test”.

Despite the fact that this test is available in Ireland, her doctor became accusatory and said: “Well, the question you have to ask yourself is, what are you going to do with that information?” She was repeatedly fobbed off until eventually the window during which the test could be performed closed. “If my baby had Down’s,” she said, “I just wanted the opportunity to tell family and friends during my pregnancy, so no one would commiserate instead of congratulating us when he was born. That was all.”

The control of pregnant women is not confined to Ireland. As our knowledge of prenatal development grows, such control is insidiously tolerated. The behaviour of pregnant women is increasingly monitored. Do they drink? Smoke? Exercise too much or too little? Jump on trampolines? As their autonomy diminishes, their blame is assured.

However, by enshrining the eighth amendment within the Irish constitution this control isn’t just tolerated, isn’t just legitimised, it is protected as a significant value that defines Irish society.

How much longer can we accept that?

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