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17 April 2013

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Speech by Caoimghín Ó Caoláin on Symphysiotomy Bill

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin with symphysiotomy survivors at Leinster House

And the vast majority of the visitors were women who survived the horrific symphysiotomy operation.

GABHAIM buíochas le gach Teachta a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo aréir agus anocht. Céim eile chun tosaigh atá ann, céim eile i dtreo cothrom na féinne do na mná a d’fhulaing inár nospidéal.

I sincerely thank all Deputies who have participated in this debate last night and tonight.

In nearly 16 years in this House I have never seen such a large attendance of visitors for any debate. And the vast majority of the visitors were women who survived the horrific symphysiotomy operation. These are brave and determined and dignified women and we salute them all.

The Dáil will not divide on this Bill tonight. That is an important step forward. As I said at the outset of the debate, more than once in the past the survivors of symphysiotomy have left Leinster House disappointed and disillusioned. That will not be the case tonight.

I welcome the decision of the Government and Health Minister James Reilly to agree to accept this Bill.

In announcing this acceptance in his speech last night the Minister said he wished to give a strong message to the women involved that he intends to help them get closure to this matter in the fairest way possible. That too is welcome.

In the course of his contribution, Minister Reilly said it is difficult to understand why the practice of symphysiotomy persisted when caesarean section was so safe in the latter half of the 20th century and that as a doctor he deeply regretted that.

It is indeed difficult to understand, but we need to try to understand. We are dealing here with an era when doctors were always right and were never questioned, as one of our speakers at yesterday’s Oireachtas members’ briefing pointed out.

There was a mindset among an important cohort of doctors in our maternity hospitals that their interpretation of Roman Catholic doctrine was correct and that the bodies of women must be subservient to that doctrine.

These clinicians were bolstered in that mindset by the unaccountable authority with which their profession was endowed at that time. And that type of authority has only been successfully challenged in very recent times as the Michael Neary scandal and others have demonstrated.

It is important for the Minister and for everyone to understand that context in order to understand the enormity of what happened to these women, why it happened and why the State’s response needs to be whole-hearted in ensuring justice and truth.

I regret that the Minister’s speech, while welcome in accepting the Bill, also indicated that in addressing the next required steps, the Government will be less than whole-hearted. He stated that the Government is committed to dealing sensitively with the issue so that it can be brought to “an appropriate and fair conclusion”.

The question is this: Who decides appropriate and who decides fair - and fair for whom?

The Minister claimed that there are serious flaws in the Bill. What serious flaws? He did not identify them. He should spell them out. It is already known that we have had some of the finest legal minds in this State check over the Bill’s construction. It is carefully based on the precedent in the child sex abuse amendment of this same Statute.

It is not that this Bill is flawed; it is the absence of political will to accommodate the wishes of the greater number of the survivors.

That said, if this legislation does have any flaws or weaknesses, then let us address them at Committee Stage.

The Minister referred to services that have been put in place for the women by the HSE. This list includes very little that the vast majority of the women are not already entitled to. They are almost all in their 70s and 80s and Ellen O’Brien was here last night and she is 91. They are entitled to their medical cards anyway. This is not a special entitlement now for most of the survivors.

The Minister’s claim that the HSE is pro-active in assisting the women is not borne out by many of the women’s accounts of their experiences.

In addressing the core of the Bill itself the Minister stated that it raises significant policy and legal issues which have wide-ranging implications. Again, these were not spelt out. With a clear precedent in 2000, where were these so-called significant policy and legal issues then?

The Minister was quite right in saying that the State has a duty to ensure due process and the fair administration of justice and a fair balance between the rights of plaintiffs and defendants. But where is the fair balance when the plaintiffs , through no fault of their own, are entirely excluded from seeking legal redress in the courts?

We say - allow these women access to the courts and then let the courts decide, based on the evidence presented.

When I heard the following phrase in the Minister’s speech I saw a dense fog descending: “…legal advice indicates that lifting the Statute bar raises very complex issues that require broader consideration on a cross-departmental basis”.

That is a formula for delay and obfuscation if ever I heard one. It is a Sir Humphrey formula of words for doing as little as possible. It is not acceptable.

The Minister spoke of the aim of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology programme to improve healthcare choice for women. That is laudable but general. The specific purpose of this Bill is to provide resolution choices for the women survivors of symphysiotomy.

The Minister said the Government is not persuaded that lifting the bar on the Statute of Limitations will resolve the problems facing the women who wish to bring their cases before the courts. Eminent legal advice says otherwise. Why not let the courts decide?

Regrettably that statement from the Minister demonstrates a refusal to commit to facilitate the passage of this Bill through its further stages, even though he said he accepts the Bill.

I must emphasise that there is no-one encouraging these women to bring actions that may have little success, as the Minister suggested. There is no-one leading them by the nose. This route is their clearly stated wish. There are steps that can be taken, by agreement, that would limit legal costs. All it takes is to sit down and talk this through with the women’s representatives and legal advisors. Will the Minister and his advisors undertake to do this?

And remember, most importantly, it is the failure of Governments, not just historically, but in recent years and up to the present, to ensure justice and truth for these women, that makes the legal route the preferred option of most of them. It is not long since the Minister himself , in this chamber, contested the description of symphysiotomy as a barbaric practice. That is undeniable now.

Having passed Second Stage, this Bill, under Dáil Standing Order 118, is automatically referred to the Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It must not be shelved. We will be pressing for the Committee to schedule Committee Stage at the earliest opportunity.

In conclusion I again thank all who have participated. I pay tribute to all the survivors and I look forward to them completing their journey towards truth and justice. We all have positive role to play in assisting them to complete that long and difficult trek. Let none of us fail them.

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