By Caitríona Ní Chathain
Upon learning of the jail sentence for Caitlin Corcoran, a 23-year-old woman from Waterford, for the tragic death of her new-born infant, activists and members of ROSA Socialist-Feminist Movement and the Socialist Party wish to share their solidarity with Caitlin and her family, and outrage at this senseless and harmful court ruling.
On the day of the tragedy, during an examination by a doctor, Caitlin went into a bathroom and spent thirteen minutes giving birth without telling anybody, an unimaginably traumatising event. Unsurprisingly, Caitlin is currently suffering from depression and post traumatic symptoms, yet this entire trial has shown little concern for her physical and mental wellbeing.
Lack of compassion
It is highly concerning that the DPP would consider criminalising a young woman who clearly gave birth in shock. To give a custodial sentence under these circumstances is not only futile, but it breaks with previous compassionate views in similar cases. In most instances, we hear of Gardaí making appeals for the woman to come forward with the promise of compassion and privacy. This was not the case for Caitlin, however, who has had the full weight of the law come down on her, with a so-called “nominal” prison sentence (three months in jail, with three years suspended) for charges of “manslaughter” and “neglect” offences.
Even if the state were to argue that the Infanticide Act (1949) was appropriately enacted, it is a law that clearly belongs to a bygone era and fails to take into account the well-researched mental health dangers during the peri-natal and neo-natal stages of pregnancy and birth. Both stages are a time of increased vulnerability for women with psychiatric disorders and poor postpartum mental health is widely known to be especially fatal. In the UK and Ireland, suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in the first year after a pregnancy. Ireland’s perinatal mental health services are wholly inadequate, creating unnecessary suffering and risk during this complex period.
Interestingly, what is not on trial here is the fact that Caitlin is a victim of domestic abuse, which no doubt contributed to her poor mental health. During the trial, she spoke of being beaten and punched by her father and getting bullied at school, something that can have a lasting effect on a survivor. Instead of further interrogating this, the courts took a moralistic tone, overlooking not only Caitlin’s fragile mental health, but also the social and material realities of raising a child, something to which the state offers almost no support, and places the full burden of responsibility on the parents, quite often the mother.
Sadly, this kind of state-approved misogyny has given way to a history of concealment of pregnancy. We are reminded of the case of Ann Lovett, who in 1984, having hidden her pregnancy, gave birth in secrecy and fear in a Catholic Grotto, where both she and her newborn infant subsequently died. Even in recent years, there are numerous reports of newborn infants found, or bodies of newborn infants found in public areas, with stories in the Irish Times of twenty-four found (live and newborn) over the space of ten years (1996 – 2005). Research has shown that keeping pregnancy secret from others allows women to maintain control over their decision-making in a society where bodily autonomy is a right denied to them. An abusive family home or the fear of the stigma attached to being a lone mother may also contribute to the concealment or denial of pregnancy.
There are immediate actions the state could take in order to alleviate this situation. The removal of all obstacles around access to timely abortions is one major factor. Also, laws in France and Germany allow women and pregnant people to give birth almost completely anonymously. However, this would require a complete ideology shift from the austerity and historic misogyny at the heart of the government and its institutions.
Women kept in state of fear and subservience
Indeed, the state must yet fully atone for the shameful treatment of pregnant women, when countless unmarried expectant mothers were forced to work and give birth in ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ in the last century. These were places where women’s human rights were abused and taken away from them. The trafficking of newborn babies and the free labour done for the enrichment of the church was accepted in a society where women were considered ‘sinners’ for transgressing strict religious norms. This collusion of church and state helped to keep women in a state of fear and subservience.
The state-sanctioned incarceration and humiliation lives on. Caitlin’s presence in Limerick Prison will add to the number of detained women, which make up 3.8% of Ireland’s prison population. The rate of female prison committals has risen more rapidly than for males since 2011. The vast majority of female commitals are for non-violent crimes, particularly, non-payment of fines, a punishment for simply being poor. The detention of women is known to have detrimental effects on mental wellbeing as well as the welfare of the families and dependents of the women being detained. The devastating legacy of imprisonment is reflected in poor employment opportunities for women with a criminal record (more so than men), as well as difficulties in accessing housing, third-level education, travelling, volunteering and getting insurance.
The threat of social stigma, violence and abuse, along with the very real precarity associated with raising a family under capitalism is a modern-day nightmare for many working-class women and non-binary people. Caitlin, a survivor of bullying and abuse, will likely not see justice for the harm that was done to her. And instead of receiving compassionate care, she is being incarcerated. This unjust ruling must be situated in a capitalist society where violence against women is normalised by the media and the courts, where our bodily autonomy is at the mercy of judges and doctors, and where companies ruthlessly profit off the backs of our labour.
We call for:
- The immediate release of Caitlin Corcoran and all charges against her dropped.
- Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee to change the Infanticide Law to reflect modern medical science and the social realities of pregnancy and birth.
- Increased funding in mental health services, including free trauma informed counselling services for all those who need it
- A roll-out of objective, consent-based, pro-LGBTQ+ sex education in all schools.
- A mass roll-out of public housing that will benefit lone parents and the wider working class.
- Free universal childcare and healthcare.
- A full-scale inquiry into the detrimental, societal impacts of the penal system in Ireland, and more funding for community services to prevent crime.