Concealed pregnancies: media is negative, says Trinity study

Women who hide their pregnancies are often judged harshly and insensitively, says author

There is a serious lack of understanding about concealed pregnancies and the difficulties involved, said the report’s author Sylvia Murphy Tighe. Photograph posed by model: iStock

There is a serious lack of understanding about concealed pregnancies and the difficulties involved, said the report’s author Sylvia Murphy Tighe. Photograph posed by model: iStock

 

Media reports on concealed pregnancies are often negative and judgmental about the women, according to a major study on the issue.

The “Keeping It Secret Study” (Kiss), from Trinity College, Dublin to be published in the summer, is based on interviews with 30 women, aged between 15 and 35, who concealed their pregnancies in recent years.

The numbers show the issue persists and is “not relegated to the era of the mother and baby homes”.

A concealed pregnancy is where a woman or girl keeps it secret from family and the wider community. While some women may not want to be pregnant, others may simply not want other people to know.

Report author Sylvia Murphy Tighe said concealed pregnancies were an “ongoing situation for women in Ireland today” and “often negatively and insensitively covered in the media”.

Reports often seemed to assume women who conceal their pregnancy were mentally ill, impoverished or victims in some way. In cases where babies were found, terms such as “abandoned” or “dumped” were used in reports.

These terms seemed to negatively judge mothers about whose circumstances journalists usually knew nothing. It was possible, said the author, someone other than the mother had left the baby.

Notions of deviancy

In a study of media reports in two cases – those of “baby Maria” and “baby Alannah” – Ms Murphy Tighe found“many cruel and insensitive headlines”.

In May 2015 gardaí in Clondalkin appealed for the mother of baby girl found wrapped in a blanket and bin bag on a side road in Rathcoole. The baby was brought to hospital and named Maria by staff.

In May 2016 gardaí in Bray issued an appeal for the mother of a dead baby – who they named Alannah – found in a waste recycling facility, to come forward.

Neither mother has come forward, the Garda press office confirmed this week.

Headlines around these cases used phrases including “dumped baby”, “bin bag tot”, “baby in bag case”, and “mother must feel like a hunted animal”.

“Women who participated in the study spoke about reading and hearing such negative terms in newspapers and on TV and radio,” said Ms Murphy Tighe.

“They heard terms like ‘deceptive’, ‘mad’, ‘neglectful’, ‘mentally ill’. Such terms do not present a positive portrayal of women who have been through a traumatic, isolating and lonely experience, and they may contribute to notions of deviancy or victimhood.”

Motherhood continued to be highly idealised in Irish culture, Ms Murphy Tighe added. A woman who fell short of the ideal – including not wanting to be a mother – often faced public judgment, which did little to encourage them to seek the supports they needed.

While there were repeated calls for these babies’ birth-mothers to be reunited with them, little consideration was given as to whether the women wanted to be reunited with them, or if it was in their best interests.

“The focus is so much on the child’s interests, while the woman’s seems almost irrelevant.”

In appeals for the mother of baby “Maria” to come forward, no helpline was offered to her in media reports.

“This demonstrates a serious lack of understanding about concealed pregnancies and the difficulties involved,” said Ms Murphy Tighe.

She called for the development of guidelines for the media on how to report on such cases, similar to guidelines on reporting on suicide.