Between 1942 and 1990 in Ireland, more than 1,500 pregnant women in childbirth endured, often without their consent, an operation called symphysiotomy that involves breaking the pelvis to make more space for the baby to be born and sometimes involving having their pubic bone sawed through. Others claim their wombs were removed without their consent. Now, survivors of these operations are speaking out – and they’re alleging that these doctors wanted nothing more than to control the woman’s reproductive health.
A woman can only receive a cesarean section (a C-section) a limited number of times, whereas a symphysiotomy would mean a woman could have as many kids as possible. In Ireland, many doctors chose to perform the painful procedure on women in objection to the notion of limiting a woman’s capacity to bear children. A known 200 Irish women who have received this brutal operation are still alive today.
“These doctors saw cesarean sections as a ‘moral hazard’ that capped family size and led to the ‘evil’ of family planning,” said a representative from the group Survivors Of Symphysiotomy. “They preferred to break women’s pelvises instead.”
Survivors Of Symphysiotomy submitted a report to the UN Committee Against Torture, wherein a survivor named Cora testified against the procedure. “I was screaming,” her testimony reads. “[The anesthetic is] not working, I said, I can feel everything. I saw him go and take out a proper hacksaw, like a wood saw…a half-circle with a straight blade and a handle…The blood shot up to the ceiling, up onto his glasses, all over the nurses … They told me to push her out, she must have been out before they burnt me. He put the two bones together, there was a burning pain. I thought I was going to die.”
Another complaint was that a surgeon in Drogheda – in the same hospital where many of these symphysiotomies were performed – removed the wombs of 129 women and the ovaries of others. Most of the women did not need the procedure, and most did not give consent. The complaints were first raised in the 1970s, but took until 2003 for the surgeon to be taken off the Medical Register, and until just last year for the women to receive money from a part of a redress scheme.
After an inquiry was set up and a verdict was released, a report showed that obedience and fear contributed to the reason these procedures were able to continue for so long.
“When I held consultations with survivors for the symphysiotomy report, many said the same thing,” Professor Oonagh Walsh of Glasgow Caledonian University told the Telegraph. “One woman said that the Medical Missionary nuns told her Gerard Connolly’s [who carried out many of the symphysiotomies] hands ‘had been blessed by the Pope’ so everything he did apparently had Divine authority. That culture of deference was very powerful and difficult to overcome.”
Marie Reaburn, who had her ovaries removed by Michael Neary 22 years ago, had been told by Neary that she had endometriosis and needed the operation. The procedure caused her to go through a “horrendous” early menopause – but the operation was completely unnecessary. “As far as I’m concerned, Michael Neary should be in jail for what he did,” Reaburn told the Telegraph. “We had to fight for years for compensation and he’s on his £100,000-a-year pension and has a villa out in Spain. It was a very desperate time. … Back then you looked up to the doctor and you didn’t question him.”
Survivors of the operations are sometimes left unable to walk or incontinent and in pain. Last year, symphysiotomy survivors were offered €50,000, €100,00 or €150,000, depending on how severe their injuries are, as part of a redress scheme. But survivors of the brutal operations want more than compensation – they want to ensure these unnecessary procedures never happen again. The Irish Medical Council changed its procedure in order to better identify doctors who perform poorly, and complaints are easier to file.
Patient Focus, an Irish advocacy organization, says there is still a lot of progress to be made. Abortion is still illegal in Ireland except in cases of incest or rape and if the woman’s life is in danger. The country’s strict abortion laws send more than 3,000 Irish women to England or Wales to receive abortion care every year. And recent news shows women and their families often suffer as a result of these laws.
“There’s still a long way to go,” says Molloy. “Last year we were inundated with concerned women contacting our service about the care provided to them in our Maternity services. It was horrendous. I remember what happened to me and think, ‘18 years on and now this is happening?’”
Media Resources: The Telegraph 2/11/2015; Feminist Newswire 12/19/2014, 8/18/2014; Irish Family Planning Association