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28 April 2013 Edition

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Symphysiotomy survivors score Dáil success

Government backs down as Ó Caoláin Bill wins all-party support

• Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, with symphysiotomy survivors, speaks to the media outside Leinster House

The overwhelming majority of those subjected to symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were young women having their first child and whose knowledge of childbirth was extremely limited.

“IF THE LINCHPIN of your body is broken, everything else falls apart.” These were the stark and simple words of Rita McCann, a survivor of the medical practice of symphysiotomy who spoke at a press conference by survivors. Rita and fellow survivors were in Dublin to call on the Government and opposition parties to support the legislation that would allow them to pursue personal injury claims for the injuries they suffered many years ago.

At the press conference, the survivors spoke movingly and harrowingly of their ordeal. Rita McCann said no one in the hospital where she underwent the ordeal made any attempt to tell her about the operation she was having. “I was taken in and abused,” she said.

Like all the survivors, she lives to this day with the severe physical pain and discomfort and the deep emotional trauma caused by this barbaric operation.

It is estimated that some 1,500 women suffered this form of abuse in Irish hospitals between the 1950s and the 1980s. In many cases it was years later before they realised or were made aware of exactly what had been done to them. They had to live with the pain and the trauma without any explanation. Even today women are still coming forward, hearing the stories of fellow victims and realising that this too is their story.

The surviving women are now advanced in years. Most of the victims, around 1,300 women, have passed on, some only in recent weeks.

The overwhelming majority of those subjected to symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were young women having their first child and whose knowledge of childbirth was extremely limited.

Many did not realise that the injuries they suffered were other than the normal effects of childbirth. Nor did they understand (for many years and in most cases decades later) that these horrendous consequences were the result of childbirth operations that had been performed on them without their knowledge or consent.

As a consequence of this lack of knowledge, some survivors have never initiated proceedings, nor even sought professional advice, while others only did so decades after the wrongful acts to which they were subjected were committed.

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As Sinn Féin spokesperson for Health and Children Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin put it:

“These were, in effect, clandestine operations which were concealed from them by sections of the medical profession.”

Opening the Dáil debate on 16 April, the TD for Cavan/Monaghan welcomed the surviving women and their families who packed the Dáil’s public gallery before saying:

“More than once in the past these women have left Leinster House feeling disappointed and let down by the political system. I sincerely hope that is not the case again and at the very outset of this debate I appeal individually to each and every Teachta Dála, regardless of where they sit in this chamber, to support these women by supporting this Bill.”

He described it as an issue of “truth and justice for women who were mutilated in the Irish hospital system”, adding that the original injuries and wrongs were “compounded by concealment, lies, denials, decades of silence from the state”.

Ó Caoláin went on to say:

“A conspiracy of powerful and unaccountable men in the medical profession made the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy possible in Irish hospitals, with no protection for the women concerned from the health system or from any other arm of Government. They were simply abandoned to their fate.”

Appealing for cross-party support for the amendment he said:

“This is a test of our political system’s ability to act on behalf of the people in acknowledging wrongs and putting them right.”

The Government did not oppose the Bill and allowed it to pass second stage, a very rare event for an opposition bill. The pressure is on now for the Government to follow through and facilitate the enactment of the Bill.

» The full Dáil speech from Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is available HERE

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