Inequalities and stigma continue to affect outcomes for Teen Mothers in Ireland

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 10:15

As we approach Mother’s Day 2018 (Sunday, 11 March), mums across Ireland are being celebrated for the important role they play. However, while Irish society has seen huge amounts of progress in in recent years, teenage mums still face stigma and discrimination.

This is according to Maynooth University lecturer in Applied Social Science Dr Ciara Bradley, whose recent chapter The Construction of Teenage Parenting in the Republic of Ireland examines the incidence of teen pregnancy in Ireland both historically and in recent years, as well as the social attitudes that shape how teen mothers are viewed in contemporary Irish society. She concludes that despite advances in social security policies, legislation and information around contraception and abortion, education and access to technology, Ireland is still a patriarchal society that disadvantages teenage mothers.

Dr Bradley explains: “Research in this area highlights that there are many misconceptions about teenage motherhood - for example that incidences are increasing or that young mothers often become pregnant to access social welfare benefits and subsidised housing, despite there being little evidence to support these claims.

“The issue is not the early life pregnancy. Rather, the gendered and class based inequalities associated with both the incidence and the outcomes of teenage parenthood are the real issues.

“First of all, both the perceived and real responsibility for the pregnancy still lies with the woman. This affects how the young woman is viewed in society. This applies from conception, and in Ireland today choice is limited. If parenting alone, the responsibility also often lies with the woman both placing a burden on the mother and also at the expense perhaps of the father’s involvement.”

In her research, Dr Bradley notes that before 1960, although teenage pregnancy was not a visible ‘problem’ in Irish society, examination of the 1957 census reveals pre-marital conceptions were a greater feature of Irish life at this time than non-marital birth statistics would suggest. This is generally because the first strategy of managing a non-marital pregnancy at that time was to encourage the marriage of the mother before the child was born. By having young pregnant women either married before their child was born, interned in institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries, or having their babies adopted, there was not the same visibility and discussion of teen pregnancy as seen in later years.

Teen fertility rates in Ireland increased from the 1960s to a peak in 1980, only to decline until 1995, and increase again until 2000, when they reached an all-time high. During this period, the Irish teenage fertility rate was higher than that the EU average, but still well below the rates experienced in the UK, New Zealand and the USA.
In 2000, 93% of Irish teenage births were to ‘unmarried’ mothers, which represented the highest level in all European countries at the time.  This shows a stark change in a society in which young women would have previously been married off in the case of an unplanned pregnancy.

Births to teenage mothers have steadily declined in Ireland since then. According to the Central Statistics Office, numbers have fallen by 62% in the period 2001-2015, from 3,087 to 1,187, with a 72% decline in the number of teenagers giving Irish addresses at abortion clinics in Britain in this time. A range of factors have contributed to this, including more comprehensive sexual and health education in schools, the proliferation of the internet which went from 20% of all households in 2000 to nearly 87% in 2016 (CSO statistics) and access to cheaper air travel.

As rates of teenage pregnancies in Ireland have changed, so have Irish attitudes to gender and sexuality evolved. The past four decades have seen significant improvements in in the lives of women, the LGBTQ communities and other minorities. However, teenage mothers still experience inequalities in society.

“That many teenage mothers are unmarried is significant, as attitudes to them highlight the negative perceptions also facing one-parent families in society, and the continuing preference for the male breadwinner model in social policy by framing mothers as being dependent on the state.”

Dr Bradley adds: “Analysis of these attitudes reveal the perceived sexual irresponsibility of women and their supposed lack of responsibility in pursuing education and employment, rather than focusing on the structural barriers that inhibit women’s choices regarding participation in education and employment such as educational opportunities, affordable quality childcare, transport and acknowledging that these barriers affect some women more than others.”

The inequalities outlined by Dr Bradley are evident in many developed countries, including the UK and the US. However, the issue also needs to be viewed in a uniquely Irish context: “The Catholic Church had much influence on the development of the Irish State and today’s society, preaching the centrality of marriage and the family, the evils of sexual activity not aimed at procreation within marriage.”

This has had a profound effect on public and social policy where unmarried women are concerned, especially when they are vulnerable teenagers. The legacy of Mother & Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries is still being addressed, with abuses committed in these institutions still being uncovered. 

Dr Bradley points to this as why it is so important to break down the stigma and prejudices levelled against teenage mothers: “ultimately, a social policy that is informed by a gendered moral and economic stigma continues to limit real life opportunities for teen mothers and their families. For a real change in the 21st Century, a reconstruction of the ‘issue’ of teen pregnancy and motherhood and the societal and social policy response is needed.”