A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent abortion. My original intent was to put it in its proper place as I was recounting my memories, but that project has been moving so much more slowly than I originally planned and a post on Robert Nielsen’s blog made me decide it was time to write about it. Robert’s post was about Ann Lovett, a fifteen year old who died from hemorrhage and exposure while giving birth in a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the human woman who, according to Christian legend, gave birth to a god. The child died from exposure as well. The realization that I had had a safe, legal abortion within a month of her death affected me strangely. For ages, I have said that women who have had abortions should come out of the closet about it and lately, as the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is being whittled away, that sense has only grown stronger. Therefore, I decided to write about my own.
Another post I did a while back was inspired by the movie Philomena. Based on a true story, the main character of the movie had been sent to a Magdalen Laundry after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock. The laundries were run by the Catholic Church and the women were forced to engage in unpaid labor, usually against their will, with the complicity of the Irish government who would return any runaways. Any children born were put up for adoption, and the women often felt that they were forced into it.
Scandals regarding the Magdalen Laundries have been rocking Ireland for a few years now as survivors have sought redress and the Catholic Church has guarded its money. (The Magdalene Laundry – CBS News ; Magdalene survivors ‘being punished twice’ ; Excessive burden of proof on Magdalene survivors, Dáil told ; The slaves of Magdalene ; there are a great many other articles on the subject online ) The last of the laundries closed as recently as 1996. Sinead O’Connor, a singer who had a couple of hits back in the early nineties had been in one. This is far from ancient history.
So, it is not surprising to hear the latest news coming from Ireland. Some time ago, I went to hear a Celtic rock band, a young woman in the audience turned to me and said, “Don’t you wish you were Irish.” I just smiled and shrugged because, “What are you fucking crazy?” struck me as containing a sour note. In any case, it’s not likely. I was born out-of-wedlock and, in Ireland, twenty-five percent of children born out-of-wedlock never reached their first birthday. In the home portrayed in Philomena, the death rate was an astounding fifty percent. I was small, delicate, underweight, colicky and prone to skin rashes. I feel fairly certain I would have been one of the children tortured and killed. So, in all likelihood, would have my sister who was also born out-of-wedlock and who suffered very badly from asthma. The word torture seems inflammatory even as I type it, but what else are we to call it when one of the causes of death is malnutrition and some of the others are illnesses associated with malnutrition. With women imprisoned and forced to work for virtually no pay and children who are starved to death, it’s hard to see these places as being anything other than concentration camps.
The remains of approximately 800 infants and young children have been found in a septic tank in Tuam. The mass grave was first discovered by two boys playing in the nineteen seventies.
Mr Sweeney said: ‘It was a concrete slab and we used to play there but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons.”
The men say they have nightmares even to this day.
It seems a sick irony that the infants were buried in unconsecrated ground. Supposedly, the justification of the harsh treatment of the young women, many of them the mothers of the murdered children, was that this life was less important than the afterlife and that the women were presumably paying penance for their sins. What terrible sins had these children committed? Children less than one year old? Did the murderous nuns think they were sending these children to an eternal torment? Do they even believe their own myths? What was the rationale of the treatment of the children?
A local historian, Catherine Corless, has been researching the Home in Tuam. A report from 1944
described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.
The pot-belly, emaciation and loose flesh, these are the widely knows symptoms of starvation. It’s hard to see hunger on this scale and for this length of time as anything other than intentional. The writer of the article doesn’t say so in so many words, but it’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion.
Corless believes that nothing was said or done to expose the truth because people believed illegitimate children didn’t matter. “That’s what really hurts and moved me to do something,” she explains.
Later in the article, the writer elaborates:
Living and dying in a culture of shame and silence for decades, the Home Babies’ very existence was considered an affront to Ireland and God.
I am put in mind of the “honor killings”, which we are very quick to condemn in the Muslim world. I do not disagree that these killings should be condemned, however, I wonder if we can see the parallel when it takes place in a culture that is a little bit closer to our own. Some of the young women sent to the workhouses had been raped. Some were only suspected of sexual behavior. Some came from families unable to support them. Most chillingly, some never left, staying in the Homes until death, life imprisonment for minor infractions or even being a victim of rape.
Somehow, I find it deeply disturbing that the Catholic Church which has for so long opposed birth control and opposed abortion was complicit in starving to death hundreds of children because their births were inconvenient.