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26 June 2003 Edition

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Survivors of Symphysiotomy seek justice

BY ROISIN DE ROSA


They call themselves the 'Survivors of Symphysiotomy' (SOS), but they are not really survivors, but victims of a surgical procedure practised in Irish hospitals between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Symphysiotomy is a medical procedure where the pelvis is sawn apart to permanently increase the size of the pelvic opening for childbirth. However, the procedure leaves the woman unable to walk properly ever again, and further leaves her in continuous and acute pain, suffering incontinence, sickness, depression and with great difficulty in sexual intercourse. The lives of thousands of women were, in fact, destroyed.

Furthermore, this medical practice, which amounted to butchery, was perpetrated on women in childbirth without their consent or even their knowledge of what was being done to them. Even afterwards, the women were not told what had been done, or why.

They were simply left to go home, to live the rest of their lives in pain, with the quality of their lives and their relationships gone forever. Why?

Normally, a Caesarean section to enable childbirth can only be done two or at the most three times. After that, the woman can't have another child, and consequently her childbearing function is at an end. She may well be tempted to use a form of contraception to prevent conception. At the time, in Catholic Ireland, contraception was anathema to Church teachings - a sin perhaps worse than the living death the women describe.

On Tuesday, at a press conference, four women told the tragic tales of how they had been subjected to this "extraordinary and brutal" procedure, which was practiced in hospitals all over the country. They know they face a future in a wheelchair.

"We have come together to demand answers to why we were subjected to this procedure, without our knowledge or explanation after by any doctor. Why were symphysiotomies carried out when alternatives were available?"

No one has been held accountable for the suffering that women who were subjected to this procedure have borne, and continue to bear. As Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan, who organised Tuesday's press conference, says: "It's like the Hepatitis C scandal all over again."

Women representing the survivors have written continuously to the Minister of Health, requesting a meeting. Minister Mícheál Martin so far has failed to agree to meet with them.

The women want a public inquiry. They want to investigate solutions and corrective medical intervention; they want counselling services and a help line; they want provision of home help, and help to modify their homes where necessary. They want their questions answered. They want the public inquiry to include a review of the role of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Above all, they want someone to take responsibility for what happened to them, to answer their questions, to tell them what happened to them and why - for someone to be made accountable.

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