Tipp FM Legal Slot – 17th July 2012
Gillian O’Mahony on Symphysiotomy[soundcloud id=’167071752′]
What is Symphysiotomy?
Symphysiotomy was first advocated in 1597. Symphysiotomies became a routine surgical procedure for women experiencing an obstructed labour. They became less frequent in the late 19th century after the risk of maternal death.
A symphysiotomy is a barbaric procedure where the obstetrician breaks a woman’s pelvis, cutting it into two to facilitate the delivery of her baby. This procedure was discontinued and replaced by a caesarean operation in the early part of the 20th century in the developed world, except in Ireland.
How many women had the symphysiotomy procedure in Ireland and when did the procedures take place?
1,500 Irish women were victims of symphysiotomy between 1944 and 1992.
Were the women aware that they were having a symphysiotomy, did they give their consent to the procedure?
These medical professionals abused their power by performing completely unnecessary and damaging procedures on women who were at their most vulnerable. In many cases the procedures were concealed, the women were not given information before or after the surgery and their consent was not sought or given. What is even more disturbing is that most of the women who underwent this procedure were not aware of it until several years later or until very recently. Last week a case came before our Supreme Court and the five-judge court said the procedure should never have been carried out on the lady in question particularly when she was unconscious and under anaesthetic.
Why is the area of symphysiotomy so topical at the moment?
Last week the Supreme Court upheld a High Court decision that a symphysiotomy carried out on an 18 year old in 1969 at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda was “entirely unjustified and unwarranted”. The woman in this case did not know that she had a symphysiotomy until almost 33 years later when she heard a radio programme about it. She suffered chronic on-going pain, continuous back pain, incontinence and depression as a result of the symphysiotomy. The Supreme Court awarded compensation in the sum of €325,000.
Why did the procedures take place?
It has been suggested that the laws of the Catholic Church influenced the use of symphysiotomies in Ireland long after they were discontinued elsewhere. Symphysiotomy appears to have been heavily influenced by Catholic teaching forbidding contraception. It has also been claimed that many of the operations in Ireland after 1940 were carried out – without prior knowledge or consent – “mainly for religious reasons, by obstetricians who were opposed to family planning”.
The Organisation for Survivors of Symphysiotomy has claimed that obstetricians chose to perform a symphysiotomy instead of the far safer caesarean operation because the doctors viewed caesareans as a method of birth control because women can have no more than around four caesareans. For a doctor to carry out a Caesarean section on a woman was to limit the size of her family. Once a Caesarean, always a Caesarean: this was the medical view which meant that Caesareans were
associated with family planning.
In the recent Supreme Court case did the Supreme Court make any particular comments about symphysiotomy?
It did indeed, in fact Mr Justice John MacMenamin said that the procedure “was wrong, even by the standards of the time” and there was “no rationale for it”, and that the “entire fault” for what happened to her lay with the obstetrician who carried out the procedure, , “and no one else”.
Were there long-term effects on the health of the women who had the symphysiotomy?
Women who have had a symphysiotomy suffered permanent damage as a result. Many women have suffered a life of pain and discomfort because of incontinence, chronic pain, prolapsed organs, neurological and psychological problems.