Picking up the Threads, Remaking the Fabric of Care

December 2, 2015

BY Grace Wilentz

Ireland is in the midst of a sexual and reproductive rights sea change, driven by its residents and citizens. The landslide vote in support of the marriage equality referendum, and the passage of gender recognition legislation earlier this year reveal that on the ground, there is a tangible desire for social change. However, whether this change can be truly transformative remains to be seen. The measure of its transformative power will depend on whether the tide of change reaches everyone, not least of all the largest of groups to be denied their full rights and equality before the law: women and girls.

Persistent patterns of death and disability among women and girls who entered the Irish maternity services healthy and able bodied, speaks volumes about the low prioritisation of women and girls in Irish fiscal and political decision-making. When health services that only women and girls require1 are criminalised, under-funded or provided with such poor quality that they become abusive to those who use them, it is a clear indicator of systemic discrimination.

Anger and frustration at these unnecessary patterns of death and disability led a group calling themselves the Elephant Collective to collaborate on a multi-media exhibition: ‘Picking up the Threads, Remaking the Fabric of Care.’ A year in the organizing, the exhibition arose initially because of shared concerns for both women and midwives experiencing and witnessing gross violations of women’s human rights in Ireland’s dysfunctional and unaccountable health system.

The Elephant Collective was convened by Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless, professor at the Trinity College Dublin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. The collective’s name is symbolic: when an elephant goes into labour, the other females in the herd will gather together around her in order to protect her and her calf. The name reminds us of the extreme vulnerability of people when they have cause to enter a heath service, and the power of solidarity in ensuring one another’s well being.

The collective includes activists, health workers, academics and individuals whose lives have been impacted by preventable maternal death and disability. Many of its members are health workers who themselves struggle daily in their places of work to dismantle inappropriate hierarchies, stop out-of-date knowledge from being passed off for current expertise, battle the challenges of poor morale, understaffing, inadequate funding, and systemic harmful behaviours including undermining and bullying.

These issues conspire to create a grim picture of some of the problems underpinning the unacceptable quality of women’s health services in Ireland, and they cannot be addressed without an integrated and holistic approach. There is an urgent need for Irish political leadership to take an interest in identifying and eliminating systemic discrimination from the systems through which public services are provided, and ensuring those services meet AAAQ standards of availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality.

While the exhibition commemorates the lives of women who have died in Ireland’s maternity services, it is also forward looking. The Elephant Collective, in partnership with other groups including the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services (AIMS Ireland), seeks to build on this exhibition with further actions. These actions bear witness, and harness the collective voice of those calling for fundamental reform of Ireland’s health services, with women and girls at the centre of those reforms.

At the international level, a summit at the United Nations this past September saw the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a landmark global development programme for the next 15 years.  Building on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which the global community had aimed to achieve by this year, the SDGs far surpass the MDGs in ambition and sophistication. Insofar as the SDGs are a universal agenda applicable to all countries, they may support the movement in Ireland calling for the advancement of sexual and reproductive justice for all.

The exhibition launch this past week coincided with the launch of draft legislation developed by the Labour Party to follow repeal of the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution. The 8th amendment prohibits abortion, and removes all bodily autonomy from women during pregnancy, eliminating their rights to make decisions about whether or not they want to continue being pregnant, or their right to make choices during pregnancy, labour and birth.

The draft legislation responds to the calls of the overwhelming majority of Irish people who want to see the 8th amendment repealed, however, the legislation fails to put women and girls at its centre, instead focusing on limited grounds for legal abortion, shaped by out-dated but pervasive perceptions within society about the circumstances that make a woman or girl ‘deserving’ of access to abortion.   

The exhibition’s centrepiece was a hand-knitted quilt, with each square knitted by an individual whose life has been impacted by these issues. The exhibition, ‘Picking up the Threads, Remaking the Fabric of Care’ was launched on on the evening of November 25th, 2015 in St. Laurence’s Church at DIT Grangegorman.

A film is currently in production, documenting the process of creating the ‘Picking up the Threads’ exhibition. You can view the trailer here.

The exhibition commemorates the lives of the women who have died in Ireland’s maternity services. In recent years, eight women had inquests, all of which ended in verdicts of death by medical misadventure.

Tania McCabe – died 9 March, 2007, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital.
Evelyn Flanagan – died 19 October 19, 2007, Mayo General Hospital.
Jennifer Crean – admitted to National Maternity Hospital, 30 June, 2008, transferred in a coma to Beaumont Hospital, 2 July, 2008, died 10 February, 2009.
Bimbo Onanuga – died 4 March, 2010, transferred from Rotunda Hospital to the Mater Hospital.
Dhara Kivlehan – transferred from Sligo General Hospital on 24 September, 2010 died 28 September, 2010, Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital.
Nora Hyland – died 13 February, 2012, National Maternity Hospital.
Savita Halappanavar – died 28 October, 2012, Galway University Hospital.