May 2012        

Maimed women clamour for justice

On 27 March last, Olivia Kearney of Castlebellingham, Co. Louth, was awarded damages of €450,000 in the High Court by Mr Justice Seán Ryan. He found that she was the victim of “grave medical malpractice” when subjected to an unnecessary symphysiotomy on having her first baby, at the age of eighteen, at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda.
     On 15 March the minister for health, James Reilly, announced that symphysiotomy was carried out in Ireland from approximately 1920 until the early 1980s. He is to commission a long-overdue report to determine why a practice long discontinued in the developed world was carried out on some 1,500 women between 1944 and 1992.
     Symphysiotomy was introduced in 1597 by a French carpenter. It involves cutting the symphysis—the cartilage that joins the hips—to widen the passage for childbirth, an alternative to Caesarian sectioning. All the ten-minute surgery requires is a pair of surgical gloves, a local anaesthetic, a scalpel, and a urinary catheter. Being highly traumatic, it was largely replaced by the much less cruel Caesarian section.
     These archaic operations were performed mostly in Catholic private hospitals. Approximately 150 women survive today, many of them permanently disabled, incontinent, and in pain. One baby in ten died during the process, and a number suffered brain damage. One woman described the wire saw used as being like “broken glass” tearing into her.
     Most women were not warned that their pelvis would be severed; some even believed they were in for a Caesarian section. After surgery, women gave birth through the agony of an unhinged pelvis. Some fainted from the pain. Midwives aggravated the injury by forcing women to walk with a broken pelvis. Women were sent home without medical advice or painkillers, often to a lifetime of pain and incontinence.
     This anomaly of Irish obstetric medicine had its roots in the obstetricians’ compliance with Catholic reproductive ideology. As a woman was limited to no more than four Caesarian sections, this procedure was seen to be a cap on her childbearing capacity. Symphysiotomy, on the other hand, was viewed as a gateway to unlimited childbearing—the ecclesiastical desideratum. So, this procedure was routinely followed at the National Maternity Hospital (Holles Street, Dublin), the Coombe, and the Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, under the ownership of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, all three hospitals being under the control of the Catholic archdioceses.
     Women in labour in Drogheda were also used as clinical material in training medical staff bound for overseas, mainly Africa, where the Medical Missionaries of Mary were heavily involved. This low-cost operation was seen as an invaluable contribution to the obstetric technology of developing countries.
     Olivia Kearney’s case was first dismissed in the High Court, on the grounds of undue delay. Now that the truth is known about these abusive operations, the Oireachtas must lift the statute of limitations for survivors, those 150 mainly elderly women who have waited too long for justice.
■ Bodily Harm: Symphysiotomy and Pubiotomy in Ireland, 1944–92, by Marie O’Connor (Everprint, €10) is available at Connolly Books for €10. The author is chairperson of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, the support group for victims of this procedure.

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