The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week’s timely post is contributed by Sylvia Murphy Tighe and Prof Joan Lalor of Trinity College, Dublin.
Concealed Pregnancy & Newborn Abandonment: A Contemporary Problem
The recent case of Baby Maria who was found by a passer-by in Dublin on 8 May is a reminder of Ireland’s sad legacy of concealed pregnancies in traumatic and difficult circumstances. There are many views strongly held by those who have not been affected as to why women conceal a pregnancy. It is not uncommon for those perceptions to be negative. It is often assumed that concealed pregnancy is confined to history and is an artefact of a time when pregnancy outside of marriage was shunned. Although concealed pregnancy is not exclusive to Ireland, it has been associated with countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion. Ireland has a shameful history when it comes to women and their reproductive rights which continue to be legally controlled by the 8th Amendment which gives equal right to life to the mother and fetus. Ireland has a national biography that is characterised by the scars of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and forced adoption, each seen as a State sponsored solution to pregnancy outside of marriage.
Concealed pregnancy is defined as a complex phenomenon where a woman hides her pregnancy from her partner, family, friends and social network. The psychological processes involved are poorly understood and there is much ambiguity around the definitions used. Because of some high profile cases there is a stereotypical view that women who conceal a pregnancy are young or victims of sexual abuse within or outside the family. However, in reality a woman may be in a relationship, married with children and financially secure. Although we may have a variation in the presentation of concealed pregnancies compared to typical cases 50 years ago, sadly the outcomes for women and their babies remain the same. Women who birth alone and unsupported risk their life and that of their newborn infant for fear of being discovered. One key change in our attitude to concealed pregnancy is that although concealed pregnancy outside of marriage once shunned is generally accepted and societal opprobrium has moved to viewing concealed pregnancy as a deviant behaviour. It is in that context that research and opinion based on a highly medicalised approach has pathologised women who conceal a pregnancy and has connected concealment with mental ill health.
Concealed pregnancy as a social issue remains a contemporary problem in many countries not just Ireland. Even in multicultural pluralist countries concealing a pregnancy is an ongoing problem. Recent media coverage has highlighted the contemporary nature of this phenomenon (see notes below). Concealed pregnancy and its significance was highlighted in the United States following the death of a 19 year old University student and her newborn baby and in Australia following the abandonment of a newborn baby in a drain. In May 2014 an Irish woman backpacking across Australia gave birth to a stillborn baby having concealed her pregnancy. This 25 year old woman was named and pilloried by some sections of the media and was charged and imprisoned as concealing a birth is illegal in Australia. She was later repatriated back to Ireland to await trial but following a public outcry the charges were dropped.
Tragic outcomes such as neonaticide and infanticide have been analysed within the context of strengthening child protection measures. However, as far as we are aware the first time that a link has been established between concealed pregnancy and abandonment or neonaticide is within Reder et al’s (1993) analysis of child abuse tragedies in the UK. Whilst the 7th and 8th Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths highlight the risks to women’s lives. Consequently it is important that this link is explored further.
In the Keeping it Secret Study (The KISS Study) funded by the Health Research Board (Ireland), we are seeking to understand the psychosocial processes of concealing and revealing a pregnancy and the variables that influence the extent to which a mother is prepared to risk her own life and that of her infant to keep the pregnancy and birth hidden. Concealed pregnancy must be considered an important antecedent to tragic outcomes affecting the woman and her infant. As part of The KISS Study we also hope to explore with women what they identify as appropriate support at a time of crisis in order to underpin effective and responsive maternity care.
It has become ever more apparent the extent to which women are suffering considering the recent media headlines which have been inconsiderate and cruel. We are greatly concerned that calls for this woman to come forward to access medical care and support are being linked with reunification with her infant. What is also not being addressed is that this forced reunification may in fact take place under the surveillance of social services and child protection mechanisms. We would welcome a deeper exploration of the phenomenon of concealed pregnancy and hope that such tragic cases prompt responsible debate on how best to support women in times of crisis. This latest case demonstrates that concealed pregnancy has not been consigned to the history books where many would choose to leave it.
About the Authors:
Sylvia Murphy Tighe is a HRB Research Fellow/Doctoral Student and Prof Joan G Lalor an Associate Professor of Midwifery at the School of Nursing & Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin.
Sept 2013 University student and newborn died in college dorm following unassisted birth
May 2014 Irish backpacker gave birth drain to stillborn baby and itially charged and imprisoned
Dec 2014 Newborn baby found in drain. Mother located and was 30 year old woman with 5 year old child in Samoa
Dec 2014 Baby remains found buried on Sydney beach
April 2015 Newborn found in public toilet Southport UK
Dec 2014 Newborn found dead North Yorkshire
April 2013 Newborn found dead in park Edinburgh
Oct 2013 Newborn found in park Bermingham
July 2014 Cork Mother went to Garda Station newborn babies remains found in bin
July 2013 Cork Newborn baby born in toilet and died, case before the Courts
Reder,P., Duncan, S., Gray, M (1993) Beyond Blame: Child Abuse Tragedies Revisited. London: Routledge.