Hidden pregnancies are not a phenomenon of the past and shouldn’t be reported in a way that shames women, researchers have said.
An examination of contemporary cases of secret pregnancies and births found that women reported increased levels of stigma because of negative and insensitive media coverage. Researchers have called for clear editorial guidelines to be drawn up for reporters covering such cases.
In May 2015, a baby named Maria was found by a road in west Dublin and taken into foster care. A year later, the remains of another baby, Alannah, was found at a recycling plant in Bray. In both cases gardaí appealed for the babies’ mothers to come forward.
The Keeping It Secret study for Trinity College interviewed 30 women who had concealed their pregnancies. The women reported seeing sensationalist terms being used in coverage of the Maria and Alannah cases, including “deceptive”, “lying”, “mad”, “half-wit”, “fallen woman”, “neglectful”, “mentally ill” and “sneaky”. Reports also referenced a “dumped baby”, “bin bag tot”and “baby in bag case”.
Sylvia Murphy Tighe, the lead researcher and a lecturer in midwifery at University of Limerick, said women in Ireland were still concealing pregnancies for a number of poorly understood reasons. She added that such women needed more support and understanding in the wake of recent coverage of mother and baby homes.
“We know that concealed pregnancy can be a life-altering and difficult experience. Despite this, media reports surrounding cases of concealment can be sensationalist and emotive in tone,” Ms Murphy Tighe said. “There were repeated calls for reunification of the mother and infant in the case of Baby Maria and yet no helpline numbers were offered in media reports. This demonstrates a serious lack of understanding in relation to concealed pregnancies and the difficulties involved. Indeed little to no consideration was given to the fact that another individual may have been responsible for leaving Baby Maria in Rathcoole.”
Joan Lalor, an assistant researcher and a professor of nursing and midwifery at Trinity, said the media should adapt a previous project by the Samaritans that set out strict reporting guidelines for covering cases of suicide for hidden pregnancy cases.
“These guidelines have led to more factual and sensitive reporting, and demonstrate how effective inter-agency work can lead to greater understanding of such a sensitive issue,” she said.
The full report is expected to be published this summer.