A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an aunt of mine. She is the only girl in a family of strapping big brothers, so when she told me that she’d had a sister who had died in infancy, I found it really sad. As it turned out, this was the tip of the narrative iceberg. Her own mother is an unequivocal feminist and rabid socialist, who was best pals with Luke Kelly and always involved in politics. Apart from the infant daughter who died, she had another child with severe physical disabilities who passed away. If all of this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, her husband was frequently away in England working to try and make ends meet. Times were hard.
As my aunt and I strolled along in the summer sun, she literally stopped me in my tracks with the next part of the story. Her mother was well into her forties and began complaining of stomach pains. In the absence of periods and feeling off colour, she took herself off to the hospital. Eventually a doctor examined her, and with little warning, pronounced her pregnant (which had happened during a home visit from her husband). Lying in the bed, distraught, Mrs. X blurted out “Doctor, I simply CANNOT have any more babies, I can’t”, before bursting into tears. She opened up to the doctor about the pain of losing her two dead children and he decided that he would do some further tests. She was kept in for a couple of days and returned home soon after. In the weeks that followed, it was clear she was no longer pregnant.
When I quizzed my aunt about this – was the doctor wrong in his diagnosis of pregnancy? Was it just the menopause playing havoc with her body? – she insisted that an unspoken understanding had passed between her mother and the doctor, who took it upon himself to assist in ending her pregnancy. This was a Dublin hospital in the early 1950s in De Valera’s Catholic-gripped Ireland. How could this be? When I asked her if she thought it was an abortion, she shrugged and simply answered, “Maybe, who knows?”. But it was certainly something that neither doctor or patient even acknowledged to each other, let alone spoken of to someone else.
Unlike the relative Penny referred to in the comments of this post, Mrs. X seems to have been given a choice – albeit a taboo and illegal one – about her reproductive destiny.