In another one of Ireland’s infinite ironies, while the Citizen’s Assembly was debating the Repeal of the 8th Amendment this weekend our nation made international headlines, once again, for the cruel and inhuman treatment of Ireland’s most vulnerable women and children, this time in the case of the Tuam babies.
It is hard to know what to say in the face of such deep disregard for human life. Every time I logged on to Facebook on this weekend and saw one story after another relating to the Tuam Babies, my heart broke a little more.
We like to think that this is all in the past, Ireland has moved on and we are no longer that nation of pious moralists who imprisoned women for life sentences, without charge, without trial, for the purposes of State and Church sanctioned slavery. For what else were the Magdalen laundries or the mother and baby homes if not prisons, where the only crime was to have transgressed, willingly, but more often unwillingly, Ireland’s rigid moral and sexual codes?
The last laundry closed in 1996, a mere 21 years ago. I know at least three women in my life, one of them who is not much older than me, who were born in one. I probably know many more but because of the culture of shame and secrecy they do not speak openly about their origins.
This weekend Irish Catholic Bishops, addressed the Citizen’s Assembly to argue against changing the abortion regime in Ireland. These would be the same Bishops who felt it was acceptable to imprison women for their ‘moral transgressions’ and illegally adopt their children, in the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario the children were subjected to medical experiments, neglect, abuse. In the case of Tuam, and perhaps many more, they were left to die and unceremoniously disposed of in the septic tank. The few who were not adopted and who survived these homes would more than likely end up in the care of another of Ireland’s religiously runs institutions for orphan’s and poor children taken out of the care of their parents, where they faced more neglect and abuse.
The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland presided over this system of cruelty, abuse and incarceration, while the State and Irish society looked the other way. In 2017 what place does the Catholic Church, a morally redundant institution in the eyes of many, have in addressing a Citizen’s Assembly which is to debating the fate of Irish Women’s reproductive rights? They have argued that abortion is fundamentally wrong because every life, from the moment of conception, is sacred. Every life? Then please can they explain to us why the lives of 796 babies in Tuam were not treated as equally sacred? It appears that even to the Bon Secors nun’s who ran the home, they did not even deserve a Christian burial. If it was not for the selfless dedication of Catherine Corless we would probably never have even known the Team babies existed.
Was it because they were the illegitimate children of the ‘loose women’ imprisoned in Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and mother and baby homes? Was it because some of them were ‘mixed race‘ and, therefore, considered less than human, as Rosemary Adaser so haertbreakingly described on Friday’s Late Late Show? Or perhaps it had less to do with life and more to do with the Catholic Church’s naked profiteering and its need to maintain a rigid control over Irish morality and women’s sexuality?
I have had enough of Catholic preaching that every life is sacred. Let them be honest for a change: every embryo is sacred. Every fetus is sacred; because once you are born it would seem that what happens to your life no longer matters. The same Church that argues against repealing the 8th Amendment, opposed Noel Browne’s Mother and Child act, they opposed the right of married women to work, they opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality, they opposed the right to divorce, they opposed the marriage equality referendum and, in the ultimate irony, they opposed the child rights referendum. They imprisoned women and abused children with impunity and throughout decades.
When are we going to say to the Church enough, is enough, you no longer have a say over our lives? When are we going to face up to Ireland’s legacy of misogyny and sexual oppression? Yes in 2017 we can buy, condoms, have sex before marriage and get divorced if things don’t work out. Nevertheless, the debate around abortion is never short of a few voices who say, well if you are going to have sex you should be prepared to deal with the consequences! Or fears over women’s ‘uncontrolled sexuality’ – that we will all pretend we are suicidal just to get an abortion. Because even in 21st century Ireland, pregnancy is a woman’s problem, what else can you expect if you are going to go ‘whoring around’.
It takes two to make a baby but women, more often than not, bear the overwhelming physical, social and financial burdens of an unexpected pregnancy. In the long history of the Magdalen Laundries men were never sent away for their part in impregnating the women. One presumes that they were allowed to simply get on with their lives. Morality in Ireland is borne on women’s shoulders, in women’s wombs, and it has cost us our health, our freedom and our lives. We have gained much ground in recent years but without genuine reproductive freedom, we cannot hope to overcome this legacy of misogyny.
Thousands of women across the country, and internationally, are planning to strike on March 8th, International Women’s Day to call for a repeal of the 8th Amendment. This past year we have seen evasions on the part of the government in compensating women survivors of the Magdalen Laundries, the survivors of syphiosiotomy discredited in the government investigation, the state found guilty for inflicting cruel and inhuman treatment because of our criminalisation of abortion. And yet our government refuses to take meaningful steps to addressing these and other injustices.
Do I sound angry? Well yes I am, and with good cause too. I am 32 years old and I am done feeling like less than a full human being in my own country. The one thing that has really changed over these 32 years is that women are no longer staying silent. We are speaking out about our experiences, we are seeking rights and we are demanding justice. If not now then when?