Reframing the Narrative of Concealed Pregnancy: Contemporary Media Representations that Shame, Blame and Vilify Women

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 medieval to the modern. Our latest posting comes from Sylvia Murphy Tighe and Joan Lalor, both of Trinity College Dublin. The authors would like to thank the 28 women who participated in The Keeping it Secret (KISS) Study exploring the nature and impact of concealed pregnancy and the Health Research Board (Ireland) who funded this study.

We recently presented a paper at the Institutions and Ireland symposium on Medicine, Health and Welfare in Trinity College Dublin examining contemporary media representations of concealed pregnancy. Using a vignette we drew on the case of Baby Maria who was found by the roadside in Dublin last year to explore the use of language and the images presented. Of course we acknowledge the rights of infants in such situations and the importance of press freedom. However in the presentation we aimed to contrast the perspective of women who have experienced a concealed pregnancy against the prevailing narrative presented by the media.

Evocative Imagery and Language

The images shown on TV and newspapers included the photograph of Baby Maria which served to evoke emotions of sympathy. Other images shown included a black plastic binliner bag, a garda (policeman) in uniform, garda car and checkpoint. The framing of concealed pregnancy and the narrative constructed by the media in relation to the case was sensationalist and emotive in the overwhelming number of reports examined. We argue that the images of a Garda in uniform and Garda checkpoints created a sense of panic and could be construed as a criminal investigation despite reassurances to the contrary.  Despite numerous appeals for the mother to come forward no crisis pregnancy or psychological service helpline was shown on TV/newspapers. The only number given out was for the local Garda Station. One participant in our Keeping it Secret study commented

I’m not sure putting the baby up is a good idea either because they are working from an assumption that everybody is happy to be mothers and it’s all pretty,

and went on to say 

An informal chat with a female garda or social worker on a sofa would have created a completely different image.

Many facts remain unknown and Baby Maria may not have been left by her mother but by someone else, yet this was rarely referenced. The urgency of the three appeals emphasised the health needs of the mother and even the Minister for Justice made an appeal. One woman who experienced a concealed pregnancy wondered why it was not the Minister for Health or Minister for Children or indeed a crisis pregnancy counsellor or midwife who made the appeal. It is clear that many assumptions existed in the media as repeated calls for reunification were made. This demonstrates a serious lack of understanding in relation to crisis pregnancy and the difficulties involved. Many headlines were cruel and inconsiderate eg. “bin bag tot”, “dumped baby” and “Come and get your little baby Maria”. We highlighted this insensitive reporting and cautioned against calls for reunification in a letter published in the Irish Times.1 One participant commented  “It’s interesting because there was no public comment, no one commented or fed back. Like sometimes in the paper the next morning you see some response but there was nothing, it reached a deathly silence…..there was no response whatsoever to your letter which says it all really”.  Our recently published concept analysis of concealed pregnancy2 has identified how fear can impact on the woman and results in the use of avoidant coping strategies.

A Deleterious Impact

The tone and tenor of the language used was examined and one particular article was highlighted in the presentation. This article was printed in a mainstream broadsheet and would have been subjected to editorial oversight. The language used throughout the piece is highly emotive and was entitled “Let’s not forget baby Maria has rights also.” The journalist wrote about Ireland’s sad legacy in relation to concealed pregnancies and the difficult circumstances that may lead to newborn abandonment. We contend that the emotive tone of the language used was unhelpful and only serves to cause distress amongst women who have had such experiences. Consequently this emotive style of reporting may have a deleterious impact on women’s help seeking abilities and reinforce her secrecy and isolation. The article goes on to say

The gardai keep saying that Maria’s mother has nothing to fear by coming forward. THIS IS NOT A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION, they emphasise … But Maria too is a child of the State, a citizen and a human being. She too deserves that her plight receives the due processes of law. All we know now is that Maria was left, unsheltered from the elements, in a lonely rural laneway. And until we know the circumstances of Maria’s abandonment, the situation in which she was found constitutes a crime.

We are concerned about the framing of concealed pregnancy as the narratives seen and heard by the public serve to further stigmatise women in such situations.

Responses

Below are some comments from one participant who had experienced a concealed pregnancy.

Normally I don’t listen to stuff like that because I just get cross or upset. Because of the lack of sensitivity”….“did they really have to show the M& S bag and the black plastic bag? What good was that going to achieve? That sent me over, that freaked me out when I saw the black bag

She went on to say 

there was too much information in the media. That child, girl, woman was probably living in fear … and the impact on other members or other women that have experienced this was not even considered. That was the risk assessment they didn’t do

 well it’s cruel, its insensitive…the right word isn’t ignorance but it just shows a lack of willing to understand, it’s just a sensational news story.  And that’s wrong, its wrong and it,  it just shows how disconnected the media is from humanity.   That they just make this into a story but without understanding the effect on anybody.

 It’s wrong, actually what they do is wrong.   And they made us feel even greater sinners …You know we feel bad as it is, we feel bad enough.  All I can say is I can only imagine that lady because I don’t know… but she’s going to punish herself for the rest of her life.  And we don’t need big brother police media using their power, they are saying they are being kind and they are appealing but they are not.   It’s like a piece of gossip.  

Limited discussions and the use of emotive images and language dealing with a complex phenomenon may explain why women who have concealed a pregnancy remain silent. The dominant message was one of panic and calls for reunification of mother and infant. We conclude that the overwhelming majority of the reporting portrays women as victims, criminals or as having a mental illness.

Ethical, Factual, Appropriate and Sensitive Reporting Needed

Contemporary media reports which involve cases of Concealed Pregnancy tend to focus on the outcomes, frequently do not examine all the facts to the exclusion of the needs of the woman concerned 3. It is hard to believe that such sensationalist headlines can be printed considering Ireland’s legacy of concealed pregnancies. The images used in reports of concealed pregnancy must be carefully considered. Sensationalist, cruel and inconsiderate language hurts women who have experienced concealed pregnancy irrespective of the outcome. Women who have experienced a concealed pregnancy must not be subjected to such ill-informed journalism again. There is an urgent need for ethical press guidelines involving concealed pregnancy. Women who have experienced a concealed pregnancy describe it as having “ripples that last a lifetime”. It is high time that the media engage in ethical, factual, appropriate and sensitive reporting when dealing with concealed pregnancy. As a Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes and related matters is underway in Ireland it is vital that we learn from history as women in the past were forced to conceal pregnancies. It is critical that the media do not sentence women of today to silence and secrecy.

About the Authors:

Sylvia Murphy Tighe is a HRB Research Fellow/Doctoral Midwifery Student, School of Nursing & Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, D’Olier St, Dublin 2. Sylvia has previously written for the Perceptions of Pregnancy blog about concealed pregnancy and newborn abandonment. You can read that post here.

Professor Joan Lalor is  Associate Professor of Midwifery, School of Nursing & Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, D’Olier St, Dublin 2.

References:

  1. Murphy Tighe S & Lalor JG (2015) Letter to the Irish Times on Concealed Pregnancies published 18.05.2015 accessible on www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/concealed-pregnancies-1.2214480
  2. Murphy Tighe S & Lalor JG (2016) Concealed pregnancy: A Concept Analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing 72 (1) 50-61 Doi:10.1111/jan.12769
  3. Murphy Tighe S & Lalor JG (2015) Perceptions of Pregnancy blog accessible at www.perceptionsofpregnancy/2015/05/17/concealed-pregnancy-newborn-abandonment-a-contemporary-problem/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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