For the last several years, Ireland has undergone a national reckoning for its decades of horrible mistreatment of young, unwed mothers and their babies.
The stories of what happened have deeply shamed the Roman Catholic Church, which operated many of the institutions that took in these young girls. This week the fallout stretched to the Irish government, as the prime minister apologized for the “profound and generational wrong” the young mothers had to endure.
It’s bad enough that unmarried Irish teenagers who became pregnant often were disowned by their families, forcing them into one of the church institutions. Even worse is the knowledge that the people who ran the homes gave up many of the babies for adoption without the mother’s consent. (The Judi Dench film “Philomena” tells the story of one woman’s search for the son taken from her.)
In his apology, the prime minister said that the Ireland of the 20th century was swollen with a “perverse religious morality” that was intolerant of girls who made a mistake and the illegitimate babies they delivered.
The extent of this indifference is best explained by the story that exposed what happened: In 2014 a historian found death certificates for nearly 800 children who were reported to have died at a home run by an order of nuns. But she could only find a burial record for one of the children. Ultimately, investigators found a mass grave of babies and young children on the grounds of the home.
It was as if they had never existed.
The Irish story resonates here. Most of us remember, or have heard of, the days when a young, rural girl who got pregnant faced a shaming from her family. There were plenty of homes for unwed mothers in America, where many women gave up their babies for adoption. Unlike in Ireland, the children were not stolen away, but the American mothers who made the decision really had no other choice.
Over the last 40 years, the view of unwed motherhood has undergone immense change. For starters, more people acknowledge that a girl doesn’t just “get” pregnant — she has help from a male. Women who have a child out of wedlock are no longer shamed. And their children are judged less by how they started in life and more by what they make of themselves.
These are positive developments that follow the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” But there are downsides to this acceptance of unplanned pregnancies.
The most obvious is that too many of today’s mothers are too young, and too many children grow up in a home with only one parent — in an age when every study reports that children have a better chance of success with two parents in the home.
The trend of single parenthood — almost always involving a woman — shows no sign of letting up, and that will be a challenge as the years pass. However, when compared to the shamings and forced adoptions of decades past, it is clear that the more decent and Christian path is to follow the Bible and do for the least of our brothers and sisters.