During the final weekend of the Citizens Assembly’s considerations on the Eighth Amendment, as members voted on whether to allow abortion in Ireland, there was an interesting backdrop. It was the controversy over the location and control of our new national maternity hospital.
Funnily enough, there was also a backdrop for the previous month’s meeting. It was a report on the mass grave of the Tuam babies. It was this that added the edge as the citizens listened, on that weekend, to the personal stories from women speaking of their own experiences of the life under the Eighth Amendment.
Earlier this year, in January, after the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment’s published its report, it was the apology to Kerry woman Joanne Hayes. This was delivered for her treatment by gardaí over three decades ago when she was arrested and wrongly charged with the murder of a baby washed up on a beach near Caherciveen. This long-delayed, yet very significant event, only took place after DNA test results. This was despite the case hinging on a bizarre, you might say depraved, theory that took hold with the investigating gardaí, and was actively considered by the judge during the ensuing tribunal, that Joanne Hayes had given birth to twins by two different fathers.
Late last year, as the Eighth committee was hearing evidence, it was the sharp criticism of the Ombudsman Peter Tyndall of the Government’s scheme for Magdalene survivors. He said it was “manifestly unfair” in the way it excluded some applicants. Younger women who were living in the same buildings or convent as older women, registered as being in the laundries, had been refused access to the scheme because they were registered with industrial schools or training centres.
Last month Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said the scheme would be expanded to include more women.
“I will work with the Ombudsman and with colleagues in Government to address these matters as quickly as possible,” he said, a full five years after former
taoiseach Enda Kenny tearfully apologised to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries in the Dáil.
Also last month it was the reminder that, had she lived, Ann Lovett would have celebrated her 50th birthday. Ann was just 15 years old when she left class at the Mercy College in Granard, Co Longford, during a wet and windy lunchtime on January 31, 1984. She made her way to the local grotto and gave birth to a baby boy under the watch of a statue of the Virgin Mary.
She was found several hours later by some boys on their way home from school, the stillborn infant wrapped in his mother’s coat and Ann near death from cold and shock.
Then, just when we thought the issue of the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital was was sorted, we learnt, thanks to a report in The Sunday Times, that the directors of a new company that will take ownership of St Vincent’s Campus in Dublin, will be obliged to uphold the “value and vision” of Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity.
Last year the order of nuns, which owns the entire shareholding in St Vincent’s Hospital Group announced it will transfer ownership to a firm called St Vincent’s to ease concerns that procedures, including abortion and tubal ligation, might be banned owing to a Catholic ethos.
Also last week also it was the name Vicky Phelan that made its way into the national consciousness. This extraordinary woman, a mother of two children, has already, in the space of just a few days, done the women of this State an enormous service.
With a diagnosis of terminal cancer this powerhouse of a woman could easily and understandably have chosen to take her well deserved High Court settlement and gone home to live quietly with her family and attempt to conserve her health. This was especially true after her ordeal in court where she was put through the ringer during questioning and commended by the presiding judge for being the most impressive witness he had ever encountered. Ah the sense of déjà vu. Is this a good time to refer to yet another illuminating backdrop in Irish history — the case of Brigid McCole and the hepatitis C blood contamination scandal.
Only hours before the death of the Donegal woman from hepatitis C in 1997 did the Blood Transfusion Service Board admit liability and apologise. Even then she was threatened with costs if she pursued her case for aggravated damages. Mrs McCole had been injected with infected Anti-D after giving birth on November 5, 1977.
But Vicky Phelan chose to fight for herself and the other women who were left in the dark about their abnormal smears, and indeed for all Irish women who have attended the CervicalCheck screening programme. In recent days the politicians have been making all the right noises about fixing and checking and monitoring and making it illegal for medical personnel not to report an error when it occurs. There was even a resignation, that of the medical director of CervicalCheck Dr Grainne Flannelly — a thing that is as rare as hen’s teeth in Irish public life.
We could indulge in mega analysis of Irish society’s issues when attempting to deal with matters that relate to below the Irish female bellybutton. We could say that it was just a coincidence that it was the CervicalCheck programme
involved here, which exclusively deals with women. But we could also put it in the context of the painful history over decades and the bitter lessons learned from the litany that make up this column. Putting it another way can we name any medical/social scandal that has affected only the male gender?
AST on that lengthening list of shame is the 170,000 or so Irish women who have had to travel since 1980, mainly to the UK, to terminate their pregnancies. Then there are the 2,000 or so who take the abortion pill here every year, with the numbers rising, in the secrecy of their bedrooms — terrified that anything will go wrong and they will require medical attention and face possible prosecution.
If anything good is to come out of all of these various horror stories perpetuated against Irish women it is the fact they have re-emerged in their various ways during our national discussion on abortion Surely the sum of all of their parts add up to a really stellar argument on the need for Irish women to be given autonomy over their healthcare choices and to be allowed to have an abortion in their own country.