Women with child

January 19, 2007 in General, News

Taking care of the needs of expectant mothers Paul Andrews stresses the need for people to perceive pregnancy positively and for society to respond compassionately to the needs of women at this vulnerable time of their lives, no matter what the circumstances of the pregnancy are.

Do you remember the abortion referendum of 2002? Less than 43% of the population had bothered to vote. We were glad to be rid of the confusion of contradictory half-truths being shouted at us from placards. Gradually the crowing of the No’s and the lamenting of the Yes’s had died down. I found it a sad and distasteful time, dividing the country and dividing families – and religious families like the one I belong to – in ways that could not be anticipated.

In the matter of abortion I call myself a liberal. That is, I would defend the weak, the unborn, against the strong, the living. But others were grabbing the title of liberal, people who wanted to give adult women and men the right to dispose of babies. Liberal? However, those arguments were over for the time being.

When all the politics and shouting was over, girls were still watching their periods, and finding they were with child. Some pregnancies were greeted with delight, as the answer to prayer; some with dismay, the result of a drunken encounter with no thought of children or commitment. Some were in between, not planned, nor really accidental. Whatever the context, those girls’ lives were changed. They had a totally new experience of themselves and their bodies. They were more vulnerable, aware that the rough and tumble of childhood was over. They were more needy than they had ever been.

The need was often a financial need. Morning sickness might keep them from work or indirectly reduce their income. Women with child have to nourish themselves well, take extra care of their health; that costs. They need to look ahead and save. Their earning power at that stage of life is usually not at its best. Probably less than half of new mothers can afford to sit back and be looked after. Most feel the financial pinch.

That is an old and rich title, women with child. It should, and often does, confer dignity and interest on an expectant mother; but not always. In the past I have known girls who became pregnant and carried their child to term without ever letting their parents know. The physical and emotional stress of pregnancy was doubled by their efforts to conceal their condition; and of course that must affect the life of the unborn baby.

Women with child can feel severe stress. It is a condition charged not just with dignity and interest, but often also with foreboding and anxiety. Much of the abortion debate assumed that pregnancy was a nightmare. A whole chapter of the debate centred round the possibility of mother killing herself. Negative thinking about pregnancy dominated to such an extent that there was little focus on the needs of the mother with child.

Let me suggest a way of doing justice to the special needs of a woman with child. Give her Child Benefit from the time she is verifiably pregnant. A mother’s needs do not just begin with the birth of her baby. For nine months previously her financial and emotional needs have risen sharply. The Irish state, representing us, the public, recognises her needs once the baby is born, by allowing child benefit (the state may pay maternity benefit from the start of maternity leave – but that can come quite late in the pregnancy). Child benefit is a grant paid every month for each qualified child normally living with and being supported by the mother. Suppose we move that payment back nine months, or at least to the point when a doctor tells a woman that she is pregnant? Pregnancy testing is reliable and cheap, so the change could be managed safely.

Clearly you would not adjust the administration of it overnight. Child benefit has a long tradition here, and the ins and outs of a new system would need to be thought through. I wonder has this not been suggested earlier, by politicians, women’s groups, or other interested parties?

The move would not just help the finances of the pregnant. It would boost them emotionally, by recognising and rewarding their condition and dignity. And it would recognise the new life that is starting in the woman-with-child, the sort of recognition conveyed by the Irish greeting of an expectant mother: God bless both of you. Of course it would cost money, but I would rather see our hard-earned taxes going to needy mothers than to subsidising the expenses of public representatives, or extravagant sports facilities, or other causes that draw on public finances. And the move would draw popular support. I can think of few changes that would trigger more public approval than help for women at their most vulnerable. What do you think?