Tuesday 23 April 2019

Dead to rights

A few years ago the media had a field day over the revelation that illegitimate babies, who had the misfortune to die under the care of nuns running mother-and-baby homes, were disposed of in concrete tanks in the grounds of the institution. Mother-and-baby homes were the places to which young women, pregnant outside of wedlock, fled to deliver their babies away from the prying eyes and judgemental attitudes of the neighbours. Illegitimacy was a terrible stigma in the Ireland of the last century. After The Boy was born without a wedding in 1975, we took him along to the Dublin City Registrar to have his birth officially recorded and pick up a birth certificate. The functionaries behind the desk refused to acknowledge that the child had a father whose name could 'legitimately' be entered into the 4th column of the certificate [see Yvonne Barr's birth-cert for how 'legitimate' looks]. After a long time trying to argue with The Patriarchy about natural justice and "Behold the Man"; we caved in and had my name entered in the 7th 'Witness' column with (father) in brackets.

20 years later we were registering the births of Dau.I and Dau.II who had been born at home in a drafty old farmhouse out near Dublin Airport. To the nearest whole number, in any random month, nobody gets born in Fingal County because home-birth are really rare in Ireland and 99% of mothers in Fingal county get into one of the Dublin maternity hospitals in time to be registered as [city] Dubs. In 1995, the registrar had plenty of time to chat and we related the trauma of registering The Boy in the 1970s. Recent legislation allowed for birth certs from the Dark Ages to be retrospectively altered to reflect the biological truth that all children have two parents whether married or not. It was waaaay too late for that, for us. But that gives some flavour of how the children of unmarried mothers were othered and de-personalised by society back then. By society; not just by the, now demonised, nuns: that's too easy a snow-job.

The mother&baby spotlight has now (April 2019) moved on to Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork and St. Finbarr's Hospital up the road. The fifth interim report on these matters has found that more than 900 infants were allowed to die in Bessborough or whisked up the road in extremis to die in St Finbarr's. Of these, 836 babies are currently unaccounted for: logged in but not logged out - no death certificate; no known burial place. Because a hospital was involved in this sorry tale, it made me think that many of those babies (or parts of them) might be still around - pickled in a glass jar in a pathology lab . . . not necessarily in Ireland

Q: Why would he think that?
A: Ahem - because of the Madden Report [the actual 150pp report], maybe?
In 2005, Dr Deirdre Madden was appointed by the then MinHealth Mary Harney to look into 'organ retention' from babies: perfectly legitimate, catholic, two-married-parents, dead babies. Ireland has one of the best records in obstetrics abd gynaecology . . . if you define success as 'mother and baby alive'. Less wonderful if you insist on 'mother and baby well' or 'mother and baby entirely happy' with their experience in the maternity unit. There are still a lot of induced labours, C-sections, professionals who don't say hello; episiotomies. Neonatal death is so rare that doctors are required to do a post-mortem on pretty much all children who die in hospital. Post-mortem will very likely involve an autopsy where the liver-and-lights of the child are exposed for inspection and possibly sampled for histological or biochemical tests. Everyone accepts that as necessary; but everyone assumed that the bit and pieces were respectfully returned to the body after examination. In 1999, it was revealed that many of the out-going tiny tragic white coffins were leaving Crumlin Children's Hospital with short measure. If the pathologist thought that the failed liver would serve some useful purpose in teaching or research he would just keep it. It was a breakdown or failure of communications between doctors and the bereaved Mr and Mrs Murphy. To quote Madden:
Another reason given for the non-disclosure is that doctors had a different perspective in relation to organs and did not equate organs with the body as a whole. Doctors generally did not see the organs as having any emotional significance once the child was dead – ensuring that the body be released for burial within the timeframe sought by the family was more significant, in their view, than all the organs being replaced in the body for burial. Doctors were trained to pay less attention to the emotional and symbolic aspects of organs, and to concentrate on the functional or medical aspects.
I'm with the doctors on this one, as I wrote in 2015 in my last rantovestigation on ethics and blood-samples. But it's not really relevant what I think; the doctors and pathologists really need to acknowledge that being quite casual about dead bodies is not normal. "Normal" being that which is asserted, believed or acted upon by the majority of people.

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