Whose needs are being met?

An Cailín Rua

INHUMANE RESTRICTIONS During the pandemic, women have being forced to look after their infants alone in the immediate aftermath of birth, including surgical births, with no partners present to support. Pic: istock

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Three years ago this month, Ireland was on the cusp of a huge shift in its social and political history, the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. It was a vicious, grassroots campaign, fought for the most part by women. The scars still run deep. Sadly, ‘victory’ rings hollow for a sizeable minority, who still cannot access reproductive healthcare in their area or must still travel abroad for terminations on compassionate grounds because of the restrictive, inflexible nature of the legislation. The legislation is due for review, and another battle likely lies ahead.
But this column is not about the Eighth Amendment. It is about the restrictions that have been in place in maternity hospitals for the past year under Covid, preventing partners from being present for appointments, scans and the majority of labour.
At the time of writing, they remain in place in certain units, despite the Chief Medical Officer asserting that ‘there is no good reason in public health terms why those restrictions continue to be in place’, and despite our Minister for Health saying that all restrictions on maternity ‘visits’ should be lifted.
There is a lot to unpick here. But firstly, let’s look at some of the collateral damage that has been caused by this policy over the last year – mostly to pregnant people but also to partners. On social media, ‘In Our Shoes – Covid Pregnancy’ is sharing the stories of how restrictions in maternity units have resulted in isolation, fear, trauma and anger. Women enduring lengthy, exhausting labours, surgeries, complications, stillbirths. Women receiving the most devastating of news at scans, and having to break afterwards to their partners. Those who have had no-one to advocate on their behalf while at their most vulnerable. Women forced to look after their infants alone in the immediate aftermath of birth, including surgical births, with no partners present to support. Women who have had to deal with the terror of having a tiny baby taken away from them in a neo-natal unit, again, with no support and highly restricted visitation. Partners excluded from major life events, sitting in car parks, waiting for the call to say that everything is okay, that everything is not okay, or that ‘active labour’ has begun, and they can finally join. Sometimes, that notice comes too late.
The World Health Organisation clearly recommends supporting women to have a chosen companion during labour and childbirth, including during Covid-19. And yet over the past year, that recommendation has been blatantly ignored and women and their partners have been ignored, dismissed and gaslit. I urge you to seek out their stories, because they deserve to be heard. Whose needs are being met?
Protection of the staff in maternity units is of course, vital. Their role over the past year has intensified, too, under these restrictions. But we are a year in. While these policies were in place the rest of us could eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, get our hair done. They remain in place now, even as staff have been vaccinated. They remain, despite the fact that in the majority of cases, birth partners were already close contacts of the person giving birth. They make no sense.
Regardless of whether or not restrictions have been fully lifted by the time you read this, it is inexcusable that it has gone on for so long.
The Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (AIMS) crowdfunded last week towards cost of a full page advertisement in the Examiner. Titled: ‘An Open Letter’, its lead photo laid bare the reality – eight white, middle-aged men in control of maternity services. Who is holding them, and the heads of these units accountable? The misogyny is right there in their actions and inaction, and in the words of the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who still insists on referring to partners as ‘visitors’, but takes no decisive action.
And so, three years after that horrible, exhausting, traumatic campaign to repeal the Eighth, women have been forced once again to lay bare their trauma, their most harrowing losses, their loneliness and grief, and that of their partners, in order to try and effect change from the bottom up. The more things change, the more they remain the same.