Thursday, March 15, 2012
Symphysiotomy – righting a grievous wrong
The public gallery was abnormally packed for a Thursday morning in the Dáil. It’s not unusual to have groups of young people from schools visiting to watch proceedings but almost all of those present this morning were elderly women.
Another large group of women were in an adjacent room where they were watching proceedings on tv.
These are the survivors of a barbaric medical practice called symphysiotomy. I had never heard of symphysiotomy and pubiotomy until just over a year ago when this blog made the shift to Louth. It was brought to my attention by two very brave women Olivia Kearney and Catherine Naughton. Women of great grace and courage.
Since then I have met other victims and survivors, including the advocacy groups. They are all remarkable people. Last night a group of survivors, Matilda Behan, Ellen Moore, Helen Kennealy, and Anne Ward who spoke on behalf of her mother Mary MacDonogh’s, gave witness and harrowing testimony to the hurt and trauma of symphysiotomy.
Their accounts were deeply distressing and upsetting for those who gave them and for us who listened in silence.
Symphysiotomy amounts to institutional abuse. It involves acts of butchery against women citizens.
It is a painful, dangerous operation that unhinges the pelvis to facilitate childbirth or in the case of pubiotomy the sawing of the public bones.
Some have sought to claim that it was a standard practice internationally but the facts contradict this. The French medical profession abandoned its use in 1798, over 200 years ago. It was regarded as too dangerous to mother and child, many of whom died. The French opted for caesarean section. It took the British another 70 years to catch on to its dangers.
But in the Irish state symphysiotomy was the method of choice between the 1940’s and early 80’s.
During that time it is thought that up to 1500 women were victim of this procedure, mostly without their consent. It was also inflicted on women who were used as teaching aids for doctors and nurses and students. One hospital that used it extensively was Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda which was run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary who exported the use of this practice to Africa and India.
Those who have campaigned on this issue for many years attribute its use by the medical profession in the south to Catholic Church dogma. The Catholic Church vehemently opposed birth control methods and the use of caesarean sections limited the number of children a woman could have. It was generally accepted that the maximum number of these that could be used on a woman was four.
The use of symphysiotomy was one way of ensuring that women didn’t look to birth control.
Today there are probably no more than 200 or so survivors of symphysiotomy. They are elderly and frail citizens who carry the physical and emotional scars of this barbaric practice. Those courageous women who spoke to us last night have all suffered long term ill-health and disability as a consequence of what was done to them.
One woman who called to see me in Drogheda to tell me of her experience was Lilly McDonnell. Lilly was a victim of symphysiotomy 60 years ago. Lilly told me how her child was killed in the course of this procedure and of the physical damage done to her. She showed me the child’s birth certificate.
Like the other survivors Lilly lives daily with the harrowing consequences of what was done to her.
The state should be deeply ashamed of what it allowed to happen to these women in my view because of the influence of conservative religious fundamentalism.
It should also be ashamed about its inadequate and at times heartless response to the demands of the victims for redress and truth.
In their efforts to highlight what was done to them the victims frequently met a wall of disinformation and institutionalised obstruction. Records were destroyed or ‘lost’ and the aftercare which they deserve was denied if they could not prove, by the presentation of medical records, what had been done to them.
The Dáil and Seanad and the government has a duty to ensure that this deep wrong is finally brought to a conclusion and in a way that is acceptable to the victims.
In a real republic the rights of these citizens would have been protected and the survivors of symphysiotomy would have had justice many years ago.
The current Minister for Health Deputy James Reilly gave his full support to the demand for a public inquiry at an Oireachtas committee hearing in 2009. Now he’s the Minister with the responsibility and the power to finally make it happen.
He can authorise a full public inquiry into these events. Nothing else will suffice. Nothing else will do. Without this the campaigning but more importantly the hurt, the anguish, the grief, the bereavement for the victims will go on.
Looking up at the public gallery this morning the faces looking down were of women, grievously treated and ignored for decades and who are now mostly in their late 70s and early 80s. As each Teachta Dála stood and spoke during the debate they listened intently. Following the Ministers opening remarks Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who is the leader of the all-party group on this issue, and who has championed this campaign for many years, was the first to speak.
There was a spontaneous applause from the public gallery when he finished. And he speaker after that was applauded. Those who have been marginalised and whose pain was ignored were responding warmly to their issue finally being debated in the Dáil.
And when it was all over Caoimhghín sought the indulgence of the Leas Ceann Comhairle and asked those TDs present to stand and applaud the women. It was a rare emotional moment of unanimity in a chamber normally given over to the cut and thrust of verbal political battle.
But it can’t end here. The Dáil and the government has to deliver for the victims and their families. I believe that with political will it can be done.
I am also convinced that a number of other justice campaigns can be resolved in this term of the Dáil.
They include Justice for the Maggies, for other victims of institutionalised abuse, including in Bethany Home, and in our Lady of Lourdes Hospital Drogheda, and victims of symphysiotomy.
All these causes are crying out for justice. We can do something about it. These women as citizens deserve our support, our love and they particularly deserve to have their wrong righted.