Tag Archives: Ireland

When that human being is a pregnant woman in a country with laws to protect the fetus.

I got so upset reading this (ht jaunte) I’m going to add very little and maybe take a hiatus from the internet for the rest of the day. It reminds me of one question I’ve always had for people who dislike abortions but make exceptions for rape. Who determines if it was rape and will that determination be made in a timely manner? Rape is notoriously difficult to prosecute. I do believe that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that means that occasional people who have committed crimes are let go. Generally, the society thinks acquitting the occasional criminal is far better than imprisoning the innocent. However, deciding if a woman should be permitted an abortion is not a criminal trial. What are the standards? The second time I got pregnant, it was technically a rape because I didn’t consent. I was asleep. However, it would have been impossible to prosecute. As it happens, I didn’t even call the police. It was in the context of a relationship that had gone sour and the situation was very complicated. Even in retrospect, I don’t believe that I should have gone to the police, nor do I think the man should have been prosecuted for rape. I don’t think he posed a threat to other women and a few years later he apologized, after the relationship was over, for some of the thing he had done to me. However, I was able to get an abortion and get out of an abusive relationship because we have laws that allow “abortion on demand” in the early stages of pregnancy. Had that not been the case, would I have had to go to the police and accuse my live-in boyfriend of rape, with consequences for his life that certainly would have been greater than I believe he deserved. He came to regret what he had done, he understood it was wrong, he lost a woman he wanted to marry and I have no reason to think he ever did it again. That is a just and reasonable outcome in my mind. Would exceptions for rape include situations like mine, ones that would be hard, if not impossible, to prosecute under criminal laws?

At the risk of getting other feminists mad, I have to say that I don’t believe all rapes are the same. In the case of the woman in Ireland who is being force-fed after going on a hunger strike because she was denied an abortion, the rape is described as “traumatic.”

Shame on the Irish Independent for the way it was reported there. No mention of the rape. No mention of the rape. No mention that “preventing her from starving herself” was force feeding. No mention that she was an immigrant with limited English. No mention that she couldn’t leave the country due to her immigration status. I’m so upset, I don’t even think I can continue to look for more information. Normally, I make an attempt to at least get my facts straight before writing.

Does anyone understand the pain this woman must have been in? Does anyone care? Is she just a piece of meat for men to do with what they want? A piece of meat who mistakenly thinks of herself as a human being? Does anyone understand that this woman is in a living nightmare?

Oh, yeah, are they going to starve the child to death and throw its body in a former septic tank?

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.


I’ve got to say, I never really thought that I’d be writing a post that combined those two subjects to quite the extent that they are going to be combined in this post. For the record, I’m adopted and I’m an atheist.

A few days ago, I was watching the Daily Show with my mother on her brand new tv. She’s a big Jon Stewart fan. Steve Coogan was on talking about his latest movie, Philomena. My mother said she had seen it already but she would see it again with me.

After seeing the movie last night, I asked my mother if she felt her reaction to the movie was any different being someone who adopted two children. She said that it reminded her of my birth mother. Specifically, it reminded her of the moment when she was in the offices of the adoption agency and she read the paper they had given her describing my birth mother. I have an older sister and she said that reading about her mother didn’t make her sad. My sister’s mother was in her twenties. She came from a stable family, had a career and had had an affair with her boss. My mother said, “It’s sad, but not that sad.”

“But your mother, she was just a child herself. Her parents were divorced. She was shuttled from home to home. I wanted to adopt her too. She asked the agency if there wasn’t any way that she could keep you. It just made me incredibly, incredibly sad.”

Then she turned the question on me. One moment in the movie stood out. The main character, Martin, goes to the graveyard near the home for unwed mothers run by the Roman Catholic Church and he discovers the graves of women and children who died in childbirth. The camera pans across the neglected field of black crosses over grown with weeds. Then it rests on one and the text comes into focus. “Aged 14.” The audience gasped. I thought of my biological mother who was fourteen when I was born. Thank goodness she received proper medical care when she was pregnant.

Philomena, if you haven’t yet seen it, is about a former journalist who has recently lost his job in the Labour government and is now sort of depressed or something. At loose ends and casting about for a project, he decides, rather cynically, to try a human interest story. He apparently has no interest whatsoever in the (ridiculously obvious) larger themes of the stigma of single motherhood, the power of the Roman Catholic Church, forced labor, inadequate health care, gender and class based injustices, the relative poverty of Ireland vis-a-vis the rest of the Western World, etc., etc. I mean, the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions in the world, was forcing poor Irish women into slavery, or near slavery, through contracts with the Irish government and enforced by the police who would return any escapees, allowing a disproportionate number of them, and their children, to die in childbirth, and selling their children to wealthy Americans. Really? This guy is a journalist?

Okay, so now to make a few bucks this depressed journalist decides to help a woman who was coerced to relinquish her child for adoption fifty years earlier track him down. Spoiler alert: He’s dead. However, in the end, Mr. Snottypants learns a thing a two about the indomitablity (is that a word?) of the human spirit through the simple heart of this salt-of-the-earth Irish woman. And it’s not nearly as bad as I just made it sound.

The skilled acting and excellent direction plaster over the holes in a pretty shoddy script. There’s a point when Martin and Philomena are in a field… (Why? It’s Ireland. Ireland’s green. So people drive to fields to have conversations, apparently.) They’re in a field talking about sexual pleasure. The landscape is beautiful. The sun is setting. Steven Coogan’s hair is ringed by sunlight, like an angel. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I would so totally fuck you… it’s too bad you’re an actor… on a screen… with a wife way hotter than I am… I think Steven Coogan’s fan base of dumpy middle-aged American women just increased exponentially.

It moves along at a nice pace. My mother didn’t fall asleep once. Just when the subject starts getting a bit serious, there’s some humor to lighten it up and make it more bearable. Coogan (may I call you Steve?) is a comedian, among other things, and he co-wrote the script.

It was hard for me to enjoy the movie, to suspend disbelief, because I spent too much of the time thinking about the unspoken assumptions about society, about adoption, about atheism and about class that are whirling about this story. One critic called it a “middle-brow feel-good movie.” Apparently, the bar on feeling good must have been dramatically lowered because my mother cried throughout. So did the woman sitting on my left. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking, “I don’t buy the waitress latching onto a party goer to tell him her mother’s sob story, I don’t buy him storming into the private quarters to confront nuns, and I sure as hell don’t buy that stupid bit about the Celtic harp.”

Now I feel bad. I like Steve Coogan, I mean as much as I can considering that I don’t know him. He has that sort of hang-dog look that makes you want to start petting him. Considering that this movie has been criticized by a small portion of Catholics who have seen it as “anti-Catholic,” I feel like he certainly doesn’t need me jumping on him accusing him of class bias, but it’s hard to avoid that Philomena and Martin are broadly drawn stereotypes. I mean, really, would an actual Englishman (If you’re an Englishman please feel free to comment.) sit in an Irish abbey and declare that a piece of fruit cake is like “pandolce?” Doesn’t the English writer speak English?

At one of the most grotesque moments of the movie, Martin says on the phone something to the effect of “I have now seen what a steady diet of romance novels and the Daily Mail can do to the human mind.” That pretty much sums up the movie.  Martin is smart, educated, upper middle class, professional, and an atheist. Philomena is slow, uneducated, working class and religious. Needless to say, most of the jokes come at her expense. As comic characters they work. As dramatic characters, they fall short.

I said to my mother that I felt that it wouldn’t be very hard to find individuals who are more complex. I recall once reading a book titled The Other Mother  by Carol Schaefer, about a woman who was sent to a home for unwed mothers run by the Catholic Church and, years later, searched for the son she was forced to abandon. She is in college and in a steady relationship when she gets pregnant. One of the motivations for her to place her child with another family is to be able to finish her education. She falls away from the Catholic Church, although she does not become an atheist. Birth mothers have suffered from a great deal of stereotyping. I can recall growing up having other kids taunting me telling me that my biological mother must have been stupid or a slut, sometimes that implication that I, too, must be stupid was not left unspoken. Like Carol Schaefer, the experience of having a child out-of-wedlock turned my biological mother against orthodox forms of religion. She asked the adoption agency to not place me with a religious family.

This also feeds into stereotypes about atheists, that they’re a bunch of privileged white guys. When discussing the question of religion with my mother, I said, “I imagine some of those women must have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church.” My mother suggest that perhaps it was a function of education. I pointed out that my Philomena, as a nurse, would have had a higher level of education than my biological mother.

I almost feel bad making all these criticisms about a light, funny, tear-jerker of a movie. Almost.

I was adopted through a secular agency. At twenty-four I went to the agency to try to find my biological mother. Within a month they had put me in contact with her.