Abuse in pregnancy is a major taboo issue

By Fergal Bowers



Most people will be shocked at the revelation that one in eight Irish women have experienced abuse during pregnancy. But that is the stark finding of a newly-published study by doctors at Dublin's Rotunda Hospital. While the most common abuse reported for those so-affected was mental abuse (74%), physical abuse was reported by 69%.

It is clear that violence in pregnancy is a common problem and something of a taboo subject here. We have heard much in recent years concerning violence against children and even the elderly, but that women at a time of such vulnerability face such dangers is deeply disturbing.

In this new study, most of those abused were single or separated, aged around 27 years and most had a medical card. The types of abuse reported ranged from being pushed or thrown, beaten or hit with an object, to attempted strangulation or a combination these.

Pregnancy should be a time of joy and loving support

The scale of the problem is likely to be much greater as the information for this study was obtained through an anonymous questionnaire, issued by doctors at the Rotunda who conducted the research. They say that the big issue now must be to try and identify and help those who are facing this abuse. One recommendation is that a routine questionnaire be included in the booking visit for women who are attending hospital to prepare for the birth of a baby. That may lead to many women being missed but in time it could help more to be identified. Women at risk need to feel comfortable with telling medical staff - complete strangers most of the time - of what they are facing. Sharp medical assessment procedures should also help identify women who are reluctant to be identified as being the subject of abuse.

As the researchers who did this study note, the whole subject of abuse against women is a controversial topic and one which is a source of shame and embarrassment for those affected.

Not only is the mother at risk, but so is the unborn child. The shame is that pregnancy should be a time of joy and loving support - not a period of major risk.

There are of course many forms of abuse - physical, mental, sexual and verbal. The pregnant woman is emotionally and physically more vulnerable so that any kind of abuse should not be tolerated.

Clearly, the health service needs to be made more aware of the extent of this problem. The results of this study should go some way towards that goal. Also, good procedures to identify women at risk need to be in place. We are all aware of cases in the past where the health service failed to act or intervene at time when vulnerable individuals were being abused.

Now that we know the level of the problem here, there is a responsibility on the health and social services to act.

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