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Lorraine Clifford-Lee The law on pregnancy concealment is outdated and cruel to women

The Fianna Fáil senator says the current legal approach to these cases is entirely out of touch with trauma-sensitive approaches.

LAST FRIDAY, I attended the Court of Appeal for a case involving a young woman who concealed her pregnancy and subsequently concealed the birth of her child – with a tragic outcome.

The young woman had previously been sentenced to three years and three months imprisonment – with three years of that sentence being suspended – for the manslaughter of her newborn baby.

The DPP appealed the leniency of this sentence and this appeal was heard last Friday. In dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal held that the sentence was not unduly lenient. 

Court of Appeal President Mr Justice George Birmingham said that the woman was “terribly troubled” at the time of the pregnancy and that she “needed help, not punishment”.

Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said the “tragic” case will “live with this young woman for the rest of her life” and that the court had “no hesitation” in dismissing the DPP’s application.

She also noted that the DPP also appealed on grounds of deterrence but responded: “Is there general deterrence in a case like this?”

A wider issue

The issue of concealed pregnancies and concealed births is an area in which I have taken a deep interest for a long number of years. Concealed pregnancies often have poor outcomes for both the mother and the baby.

The lack of antenatal care or unassisted birth may result in serious illness and trauma, as well as significant emotional distress.

Despite what people may assume, concealment is not only found in restrictive and religious countries. It is a contemporary problem that needs urgent attention.

It happens across all age groups and education levels regardless of marital status. Studies have shown that it is more likely to occur in rural-based populations. The rate of concealed pregnancies up to birth is 1 in 2,500 and this is borne out in Irish, German, Welsh and American studies.

Women who conceal a pregnancy generally have had an unplanned pregnancy and are extremely fearful of it being made known. The phenomenon of infanticide is a rare event that cannot be fully explained by a single construct as each case involves the unique life circumstances of each woman.

Research in Ireland reveals that many cases of infanticide are closely associated with concealed pregnancy, a concealed birth and the mother having a history of trauma, sexual abuse and other adverse childhood experiences – such as poverty or lack of strong family relationships or social support.

Such complex psychological, social and personal circumstances deeply impact and influence a woman’s agency in terms of decision-making and help-seeking. 

The legal position

Currently, there is no legal recognition of neonaticide (an infant being killed within first 24 hours of life) being different from infanticide (an infant being killed within the first year of life).

Neonaticide is an extension of concealment. The punishment of women by a custodial sentence must be re-evaluated in light of recent research.

As well as this, the current legal framework automatically criminalises women for concealing a birth. This prevents women from seeking help for themselves and their infant (if born alive). It is time for a more humane and supportive approach that cares for all women and infants regardless of their circumstances and histories; and values their lives equally.

The law is very outdated, cruel and unsupportive of women and their babies. I am calling for an urgent examination of legal frameworks that criminalise the concealment of birth through a panel of legal experts.

The legal experts must review distinctions between neonaticide and infanticide in order that appropriate, trauma-sensitive interdisciplinary responses can be developed, particularly considering the long and sad history of this country regarding crisis pregnancies.  

The Adoption Authority should provide access to clear written information which is also available online about the adoption process. The Press Council should work with the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and NUJ (National Union of Journalists) to develop press guidelines around reporting on concealed pregnancies. News reporting often stigmatises women who conceal pregnancies or births and this stigmatisation often prevents women from seeking medical help. 

Tusla (Child and Family Agency) should also develop a protocol and guidelines to deal with cases of newborn abandonment and include other stakeholders such as Gardaí, social work, legal experts, maternity care staff and child protection staff. All stakeholders should be fully appraised of the most up-to-date research on concealment as a response to early life trauma, complicated attachment, oppressive and controlling family situations and intimate partner violence. 

The Health Service Executive Sexual Health & Crisis Pregnancy Programme (National Clinical Effectiveness Committee) should develop accessible integrated care pathways to prevent negative clinical and social outcomes such as maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality.

Information is key

In addition, online information about concealed pregnancy needs to be made available and advice about responding to the fear experienced is necessary. Information needs to be made available to indicate how women can access therapeutic counselling services if they have ever experienced a concealed pregnancy.

The HSE Sexual Education and Crisis Pregnancy Programme should consider the development of telephone helplines or working with the Samaritans to extend its listening service to include women who have experienced a concealed pregnancy.

The National Perinatal Reporting System should consider inserting a question about concealed pregnancy in its current data collection system in order to systematically identify its association with negative outcomes, as the present system only identifies it in an ad hoc manner. 

I will raise these issues directly with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

We need to act as a matter of urgency so that no other vulnerable woman is criminalised and condemned in circumstances where she deserves support and empathy.

On 31 January 1984, teenager Ann Lovett gave birth to a baby boy alone in a grotto in Co. Longford. Neither Ann nor her son survived. Next year, on the 40th anniversary of their deaths, I hope this country will have made a significant leap forward regarding this issue.

Lorraine Clifford-Lee is a Fianna Fáil senator.  


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Lorraine Clifford-Lee