Life at all costs: Growing up with Ireland’s abortion policies

It was November 27th, 2014.

By now, the story is well known- or at least, the basic facts are. A woman, in the early stages of pregnancy, was admitted to hospital with headaches and nausea. Two days later, she suffered a fall and was later found to be unresponsive. On December 3rd, she was declared clinically brain dead. She had a loving father and was already a mother to two children, aged 6 and 4, with her fiance, also the father of her unborn child. She was just 26.

What follows is bleak, if not outright harrowing. She was brain dead, but the foetus still had a heartbeat. For a period of weeks after her death, her body was maintained by mechanical ventilation and she was fed by a nasogastric tube. She was given high doses of various medications for pneumonia, fungal infections, high blood pressure, fluid build up and urinary tract problems. Physiotherapy was required. When her children came to see her, efforts were made to improve her devastated appearance: make up was applied, but the whites of her eyes were so swollen than they could not close. One of the children became distressed on seeing her. Her body swelled. An open wound on her head became infected. She no longer resembled the photograph of herself on the bedside table.

The woman’s father was told that this course of treatment would continue, ostensibly for the duration of the pregnancy. The idea was to attain foetal viability- to bring into the world the unborn foetus lying inside its brain dead mother while her corpse degenerated around it at a rapid pace. The doctors felt trapped by a decision made in an Irish referendum in 1983, relating to the right to life of the unborn child. Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution states as follows:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Her father asked that life support be discontinued, as did her partner. They felt that the support measures were unlikely to safely bring a child into the world. They felt the treatment was experimental and not based on any ethical principle. Medical staff said they felt constrained because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

How is it that Ireland’s doctors find themselves using a dead woman as an incubator, in the vague, unqualified, unscientific hope that a child may be born eventually of the experiment? How is it that this could be, not just legal, but possibly Constitutionally protected?

To find the answer to the question, we have to go back in time and consider the status of women and the unborn in Ireland- as well as Irish society itself.

Read more at Medium.

Letter to Alan Caulfield, Editor, Metro Herald

September 5th, 2014

Dear Mr Caulfield,

I am writing with regard to an article published in this morning’s Metro Herald regarding the sad details of the emerging events in Charleville, Co Cork over the past 24 hours.

A line in the article reads “A well-informed source said: ‘The place is like a butcher’s parlour, or an abbatoir. Those poor little boys suffered a shocking death.’”

I believe this sentence to be incredibly insensitive. Such graphic detail was not required or requested and in my opinion, does not serve the public interest. I firmly believe that the article was very well placed to draw attention to rising mental health and suicide problems among young people and particularly, among the Traveller community. Instead, the article has sensationalised the tragic end to three lives in a small, close knit community.

This particular sentence was particularly grim and I question the validity of printing it as a result. I draw your attention to Principle 5 of the Press Ombudsman Code of Practice, relating to Privacy. Section 5.3 states that “Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account. This should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.”

I suggest this situation is unlikely to become a matter for the courts, nullifying the exemption in the clause in question. The sentence printed in the article compares the violent deaths of two young boys to a butcher’s practice, presenting an image of animals for slaughter. Frankly, I believe that drawing such an analogy lessens the worth of their lives and would have a horrific impact on family members who may read the article in question.

I also note Article 9 of the Press Ombudsman Code, specifically relating to Children. Section 9.1 reads that “Newspapers and magazines shall take particular care in seeking and presenting information or comment about a child under the age of 16.” By printing the sentence in question, your newspaper has presented gory, brutal and unnecessarily visceral information about the deaths of two children under the age of 10. I remind you that there are surviving relatives, many of them very young, who may in time also read this piece.

I’m not sure of your level of awareness about mental health and suicide in the Traveller community. Currently, the Traveller suicide rate is six times that of the national settled population, and for men specifically, it is seven times higher. Incidences of mental health problems are extremely widespread and members of the community express anxiety and discomfort when talking about mental health concerns. Your article could have drawn attention to suicide support services, mental health awareness for young people, victim support organisations and Traveller support structures, but it did not. Indeed, instead of analysing the blood on the walls, the journalist could have asked why this happened, why 1 in 11 Travellers die by suicide- and how we can work to lower that figure.

This article made victims of those children all over again, rehashing their cruel end in technicolour. The public interest was not served here and I believe an apology is due- not just for this family, but for the sake of the many families who have suffered the aftermath of such a situation and who do not need such brutal reminders.

Note: Mr Caulfield did not respond to this letter. Instead, he published it in heavily edited form on the Herald website, removing all references to the Press Ombudsman Code. My complaint was never acknowledged and the Press Ombudsman refused to consider the issue unless a member of the (traumatised) family in question would sign off on on the process. 

My view from behind the bar at Electric Picnic is truly sobering

This article originally appeared in the print edition of the Irish Independent on September 2nd 2014.

More than 40,000 people descended on Stradbally, Co Laois this past weekend for the Electric Picnic, tents in hand and ready for a three day drinking party. They were willing to forgive the dank mist and grey rolling skies on Friday morning, utterly unbothered by squelching mud paths stretching from campsites to the arena.

I arrived early with a friend, gazing at the sky with a sense of foreboding and preparing myself for the dread of The Portaloo. After the business of tent pitching, we headed to the arena, but while others went to party, we went to work, serving at a bar. Like many staffing the bars we were volunteers, raising money for causes and joining in the festival fun when we had a chance.

Electric Picnic as a sober person is, well, sobering- and the view from the bar offered a sharp slap of perspective.

The pictures in the newspapers don’t tell you the full story, of people coming a cropper on the roots of trees in the dark and children exposed to dangerous, riotous drunkenness, the result of a drink culture that makes people reckless and stupid. The photos look beautiful, but the portaloos covered in excrement and vomit, the men lined up at walls urinating in front of children and the thousands and thousands of empty cups littering the grass all tell a different story. There is a darkness to Electric Picnic.

Throughout the weekend, I mildly refused suggestions of discounts, free pints and kisses (among other things). I got to know some revellers quite well, because they returned to the bar like clockwork every twenty minutes. I watched them stumble across the grass, tripping over their own wellies and spilling the pint they had just paid €6 for. Easy come, easy go.

I didn’t have to make any active effort to sell copious amounts of alcohol- in fact, it was unusual for a person to order merely one pint. The idea of not having a drink in hand at all times seemed inconceivable to most people. A 125ml plastic flute of Prosecco sold for the extortionate price of €7.50 and festival attendees lapped it up. Fifty euro notes rolled in and thousands of gallons of alcohol poured out. Plenty of bar-goers complained at the €6 cost of a pint- but not one person in thousands turned it down. Not one.

We were overworked, slipping in the mix of mud and spilled drinks inside the bar, calculating quick maths in our head as we served one person every five to ten seconds. 90% of people who came to the bar were a total joy, full of cheer and good craic, chatty and polite- but a minority were simply horrible, bullying staff into breaking regulations about bottles, lids and serving requirements.  Several people refused to leave the bar unless they got their own way and one or two offered me ‘extra money’ to break the rules, throwing temper tantrums that belong in primary schools.

It would have been incredibly easy to buy drink for the multitudes of under-agers at the festival, simply because the crowds were so huge and the bars so busy. I worried, in my sobriety, for the thousands of girls walking the grass in the pitch dark wearing very little in the freezing cold. I worried at how fragile they seemed, how easy it would be for just one person to prey on them. I worried for the 18 year old ‘men’, lost and wandering the campsite, completely unaware of the streams and dark ditches on the sides of the paths, stumbling into danger.

I settled in on Sunday evening to see St Vincent, where I laughed with a friend about an extremely drunk man who was dancing to his own party, oblivious of the world around him and almost unable to stand. That didn’t stop him from slapping women’s arses as they walked past- and fearful, they simply moved on without saying anything. He teetered close to a picnic blanket that served as a base for three small children- one still in nappies- who played chasing in the dark of the tent. Mom and Dad were close by, but I winced every time I saw bigger feet come close to trampling them in the grass. Meanwhile, festival-goers holding their children’s hands became irate when bouncers denied them access to the bar.

My bar manager was extremely surprised on Sunday when I turned down her offer of free pints at the end of my shift. She couldn’t understand why, at 6pm on a Sunday, a person wouldn’t want to unwind with a drink.

Remembering a genocide the world is determined to ignore

This article originally appeared on TheJournal.ie.

Thousands of Roma met their fate in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers, died in medical experiments or starved to death. Others were displaced or sterilised.

IN THE MIDDLE of the night between August 2nd and 3rd in 1944, almost 3,000 Roma were led from their camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau to the gas chambers, where they were ruthlessly murdered as dawn rose. Last Saturday morning, I found myself standing beside the remains of that gas chamber, surrounded by 1,000 Roma young people determined to commemorate their losses in a genocide the world seems determined to forget.

The Roma are vilified and maligned across Europe. In the 70 years since the Holocaust, their pain and suffering has been forgotten and diluted, wiped from the pages of history books while the same myths that were used to put them in camps in the first place persist into the 21st century. Widely accepted “facts” about Roma criminality and anti-social behaviour are today central to any conversation about the Roma community, despite a broad lack of understanding for the realities involved.

Pushed out 

The Roma were detested ever before the Nazis tortured, murdered and burned them en masse. In the 1920s and 30s, as the world economy bottomed out, thousands of people in Central Europe lost their jobs and retreated from cities to their home villages, where they took over jobs the Roma had been doing. The Roma became poorer and disadvantaged, forced to move from place to place to find meagre employment. In towns and villages, local craftspeople protested the competition and Roma and Sinti were fined for attempting to work.

Regional authorities across Europe began to issue special identification cards for Roma, listing them in ‘gypsy registers’ and subjected them to constant police checks as they sought shelter and work.

The poverty and disadvantage faced by the Roma was at crisis point. Gypsy conferences were organised, where ‘solutions’ to the Roma problem were suggested, including mass deportations to islands and labour camps. As the Nazis came to power, they categorised Roma as ‘born criminals’ and in the interest of crime prevention, arrested Roma they thought might someday commit a crime.

Displacement and forced sterilisation 

The first gypsy camps were made not by the Nazi party, but by local government in Germany. Roma were forced from their flats, houses and parks and moved into camps and segregated. During the 1936 Olympic Games, the Roma and Sinti were forcibly relocated to a camp on the outskirts and were not allowed to leave unless they had a job. Their property was confiscated and sold; they were never compensated. Between 1933 and 1945, more than 400,000 people were forcibly sterilised by the Nazis, including thousands of Roma and Sinti.

In the late 1930s, the first deportations of Roma to concentration camps began. While the yellow star worn by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is best known, the Roma had their own symbols, brown or black triangles, symbolising their ethnicity and their inherent ‘anti-social’ status.

In 1942, Himmler ordered that all ‘Gypsies’ still living in the German Reich must be deported to Auschwitz. More than 20,000 Roma were forced into 32 wooden huts in the Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz. They died slowly, agonisingly, of disease, starvation, hypothermia and exertion. Dr Josef Mengele maintained a lab in Auschwitz where he experimented on Roma children.

In May of 1944, the Roma in the camp learned that they were to be killed. They armed themselves with stones and sticks, barricaded themselves into their huts and fought for their lives when the Nazis came for them. The Nazis retreated, but by July, most men and strong boys had been removed to work in other camps and over 70% of the initial 20,000 had died. Those that remained, 2,879 women, children and elderly people, were massacred in the middle of the night, with nobody to defend them and nobody to hear them. It lasted mere minutes; 3000 lives snuffed out in an unremarkable moment, their bodies burned into dust on the ground.

Their story has been roundly ignored

Hundreds of thousands of Roma died as the Nazis swept across Europe. Those that did survive returned to their towns and villages to find they had nothing left, their property stolen, their families separated and lost.

We all know the story of the Holocaust. The Roma call it the ‘Porajmos’ or ‘Devouring’ and for 70 years, their story has been roundly ignored, their commemorations quiet, their memorials few. The world is willing to casually forget their loss, yet anecdotes about their ‘criminality’ and ‘anti-social behaviours’ continue to dominate conversation, despite the damage caused by those exact anecdotes in the past.

Across Europe, governments threaten and evict the Roma, refusing them access to vital services and denying them aid. In Ireland, many do not qualify for social welfare, even child benefit, despite a recent referendum on ‘children’s rights’. They face extreme unemployment and poverty. They have poor education outcomes, language and literacy barriers. They are segregated and discriminated against at every turn, but people are willing to turn a blind eye to all of that because it’s not happening to them.

I walked seven miles around the camp last Saturday with 1000 Roma people – fulfilling that adage about walking in someone else’s shoes. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a foul, disgusting place, stained with unspeakable evil and terrifying sadness. Without hesitation, the Roma welcomed me to walk with them through the dusty paths. They shared their incredible stories, their major worries, their brutal fears for the future.

They never allowed me to feel like I didn’t belong.

Asylum Seeker Accommodation (The Irish Times, July 2014)

This letter appeared in The Irish Times on July 23rd, 2014.

Sir, – Tim Dennehy (Letters, July 21st) notes that The Irish Times has not published any expressions of opinion supporting the direct provision system for asylum seekers. He is correct, perhaps because to support direct provision is to defend the indefensible. Supporting it justifies an unjustifiable situation for those men, women and children forced to live in reprehensible conditions, day after day, year after year in a brutal limbo.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights hearings last week made it clear that the Government supports and defends direct provision. Countless letters and articles have apparently not yet demonstrated to it the vast and overwhelming depravity of the system.

So we’ll keep writing. – Yours, etc,

AISLING TWOMEY,

Anne Street North,

Dublin 7

Dear World, Love Ireland

This piece originally appeared at The Irish Times.

Nobody mentioned the loneliness of leaving and of being left behind’

Dear World, – Three and a half years ago I wrote for The Irish Times as a college student facing a destitute future in a bust economy. I was frightened of what would become of me, scared of the lack of opportunity that faced me beyond the safe walls of university. When it was published I became a target of both love and hate. Some respondents called me entitled and self-righteous; others encouraged me to leave Ireland before Ireland left me in the dust.

Well, I’m still here. I completed a master’s, worked part time for two and a half years and sought an internship I adored. I worked in communications for a politician and took part in a six-month youth journalism project, covering the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union. In late 2013 I got a job with an NGO in Dublin and finally left Cork, many months after most of my friends.

By the time I left, Cork had become quiet. Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Sydney and China all called, and my friends answered in staggered groups. I noticed it in fewer social events and birthdays; fewer nights out. It felt like all the young people in Cork were there one day and gone the next.

In all of the discussions about emigration, and the brilliant, streaming light of gainful employment elsewhere, nobody mentioned the loneliness of leaving and the loneliness of being left behind.

The rest of the world is hosting hundreds of thousands of Irish people in their mid 20s. The reality of that has yet to properly bite us. Our young people have left to explore the wider world alone. In it they will set up their own lives, create new careers, marry and have children. They will settle, and it won’t be on home soil.

I miss the people I grew up with. I miss my friends. With the dawn of social networking it’s easier to stay in touch, but every few weeks there’s a Facebook update from someone else about to depart these shores. They leave in exultation, delighted to be working and living a life they imagined, reliant on themselves and determined to succeed.

What I’ve learned is that no matter where we fly to, and no matter what we do when we get there, like generations before us we’re more resilient than we look. We’ve been unafraid in our endeavours, leaping off cliffs into the unknown with unbridled hope. We’ve embraced fear. Not a person alive can say we’ve lacked courage.

Rest of the World, please mind my friends. Please keep them safe and happy. I know they had mighty dreams and aspirations. Please help them to achieve those lofty goals. And when the time comes, in two years or in 20, lead them home. – Love, Ireland