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28 April 2013 Edition

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Standing up in Europe for victims of symphysiotomy

This is funded by the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)

What compounds the barbarous nature of symphysiotomy is the fact that it was routinely carried out without the consent or prior knowledge of the women concerned

SYMPHYSIOTOMY – the operation that entailed the sawing in half during childbirth of the pubic bone of a woman to open the birth canal and in theory make the baby’s passage into the world easier – was both unnecessary and barbaric.

I am working with the chair of the committee on gender equality, Mikael Gustafsson, a fellow GUE/NGL MEP, to obtain a hearing in Brussels for the survivors of this brutal procedure.

What compounds the barbarous nature of symphysiotomy is the fact that it was routinely carried out without the consent or prior knowledge of the women concerned.

While the description of this method of childbirth may conjure up images of some form of torture straight out of the Dark Ages, it was actually a so-called medical procedure regularly used in Ireland to deliver babies in the 20th century. It was used as an alternative to Caesarean Sections by certain obstetricians who believed that the latter would limit the child-bearing capacity of Catholic mothers.

This scandal occurred at a time when Caesarean Sections were regarded as a safer option for women experiencing difficulties in labour. But its use was heavily influenced by Catholic teaching forbidding contraception as following a Caesarean a woman was advised to have no more than two further pregnancies, thereby limiting the number of children she could have.

It is estimated that, between 1944 and 1992, some 1,500 women were subjected to symphysiotomies. Decades later, the survivors are still experiencing chronic pain and traumatic flashbacks from their experience. Many symphysiotomy survivors have been left with permanent effects on their health, including impaired mobility, walking with a limp, chronic pain and incontinence.

This unsavoury episode in the annals of medical practice could arguably be listed alongside the biggest human rights scandals in Ireland of the 20th century.

Survivor group members, many of whom are now in their 70s and 80s, believe the operations were carried out, without their consent, “mainly for religious reasons by obstetricians who were opposed to family planning”.

The Irish Government owes an unreserved and full apology to all the victims of this cruel and unwarranted invasion of a woman’s right to be fully informed at every stage of medical care and of what any procedure entails and the possible ramifications involved.

My colleagues in Leinster House are taking forward an initiative seeking redress for symphysiotomy victims and I hope that my efforts in Europe will complement their efforts and that the Irish Government, which now holds the EU Presidency, will do what is right and just for the survivors.

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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