The only sex education we got was from two Born Again Christians
Dressed down in black turtle necks they came to tell us about love.
They said sex was beautiful but only within the binds of a marriage, they said babies were beautiful but only when formed inside the womb of a wife, they said women were beautiful but their bodies should only be seen by their husbands.
We were 16 years old then, alone in the choir room with two-born again virgins, our religion teacher slipped out the door as soon as the first slide of a foetus was shown.
For hours we listened to these two young men tell us the rules of love and life.
No one asked questions. One girl folded her arms and put her head on the desk not lifting it again until the lunch bell rang, signifying the end of this long lesson.
As we filed out of the room the men gave us little badges to wear. They were cute, a tiny pair of pink feet, no bigger than the tip of your little finger.
We took them and went to join the boys for lunch break, many of us pinning the pink feet beside the crest on our wooly jumpers.
The boys in our year had been playing football while we learned that there was only one way to be a woman and that was pure and there was only one way to be a parent and that was married.
Everything else it seemed, was unclean.
Time went on and the pink feet remained unthinkingly pinned to our chests, my Catholic school never again broached the topic of abortion or sexuality with us. That talk was to be our whole education on the matter.
Our bodies, the homes we would live in for our whole lives were rarely a point of any importance other than when they were regulated by the school’s rules on physical appearance.
Women’s health was not discussed, sex was not discussed, gender, consent, equality, were not discussed. This was 2011.
Leaving secondary school it seemed a layer of grime, taboo and queasiness was attached to women’s bodies.
Bodily functions were not topics for polite consumption and women’s reproductive organs were perhaps the filthiest of them all.
Growing up in Ireland there is no great mystery over how women’s bodies and sexuality are viewed, historically and contemporaneously.
One consequence of this has been a long and depressing history of health scandals that have both killed women and destroyed their lives, far beyond the remedy of any redress scheme the government eventually commits to.
It is not circumstance that there has been no great scandal in relation to men’s healthcare in Ireland, ours is a two tier system.
Women’s bodies long shamed and controlled by church and by state are still being restricted in their vitality by the Irish government’s system of healthcare.
Good health is objectively one of the most important features of people’s lives. But what happens in a country where women can not trust their healthcare provider?
The CervicalCheck scandal that has dominated the news this week, has led to huge concern from Irish women about the trustworthiness of the system.
The scandal was brought to light by Vicky Phelan, who was diagnosed in 2014 with cervical cancer and who was given a false negative result in her smear test in 2011. Phelan was told in January of this year that her cancer was incurable and she was given six to twelve months to live.
While Ms Phelan’s 2011 results first came to light in 2014 following an audit of all smear tests, her doctor was told of the incorrect result given to Ms Phelan in 2016, but she was not informed for another year.
It has since emerged that more than 200 women with cervical cancer were never informed that the negative smear test results they were given were actually inaccurate and they were not informed of the revised results for years.
What is abhorrent is that the instinct of the HSE was to ask Vicky Phelan, the figurative whistleblower of this scandal, to sign a non-disclosure agreement, rather than immediately taking the appropriate steps to inform the women affected and assist them however possible.
How can women trust a system that prefers to lie to them than help them?
17 of the women affected by false negative results have since died.
But this is just the latest in the state’s history of women’s health scandals:
129 Irish women had their wombs unnecessarily removed by Dr. Micheal Neary, a consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist in Our Lady of Lourdes Drogheda, during the 25 year period he worked there.
An estimated 1500 women and girls some as young as 14, had their pelvises deliberately broken during childbirth rarely with their consent. The procedure, called symphysiotomy was not carried out in other countries past the late 19th century but continually used in Ireland through the 20th century in place of caesarean sections.
The procedure involves cutting through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint, to widen it and allow a baby to be born without obstruction. In extreme cases a procedure called pubiotomy, the bone of the pelvis itself was sawn through.
Survivors of the procedure believe that catholic doctors employed it because caesarean sections were generally thought to place a cap on the number of children a woman could have, while symphysiotomy did not. Life-long pain, disability and emotional trauma are the consequences endured by Irish women who survived this.
Hundreds of women were infected with Hepatitis C through donated blood following childbirth and not told about it as soon as the Irish Blood Transfusion Service realised that the blood was contaminated with the virus, and were left to suffer years of ill-health without understanding the cause.
Major scandal after major scandal comes from women’s healthcare particularly around their reproductive organs. And yet it goes on and on because we are still fighting for women to be considered as deserving of first-class healthcare and honest treatment.
The problems begin early on in schools where girls are taught to feel a level of shame for their bodies, where religious dogma takes the place of education, where no one steps in and blows the whistle to say that women’s bodies are worth more than cover-ups, concealments and medical mistakes.
Why should women trust a system that has repeatedly broken that trust, has not put them first and continues to favour silent non-disclosed women over those, who like Vicky Phelan, speak up to save others.
As always in Ireland we rely on women to fend for themselves.