FERGUS FINLAY: Taoiseach, now is the time to help victims of barbaric surgical procedure

DEAR Taoiseach,
You must be scratching your head in confusion.

After a week in which history was genuinely made, as a direct result of the authority and steady leadership shown by you and the Tánaiste, you’re criticised for being a bully. Many of the same commentators who felt in the past that you should be replaced as leader of your party because you were weak and indecisive are now writing that you won’t tolerate dissent and that you’re prepared to go to any lengths to get your own way.

It’s mystifying, isn’t it?

It’s well known, I suppose, that I don’t carry a torch for your party. So I hope it will be seen as reasonably objective when I say that the way in which you exercised leadership and authority is to be thoroughly admired.

It’s clear that you set out to do the least you felt you must, and the most you felt you could. And you never wavered from that position.

My purpose in writing this open letter is to ask you to exercise your authority in one other complex medical situation that I’ve written about before. But before I go into that, I have to be honest, I didn’t think you’d do this.

Legislating for the X case was always going to be daunting and complex.

No political leader is master of their own destiny in relation to the subject, no matter what they might want to do. The referendum of 1983, and the X case ruling of 1992, have to be the guiding light for any government who wants to change the law without changing the Constitution.

Of course there have been attempts to change the Constitution in the past, and they’ve failed.

What you set out to do, I believe, was to respond to the famous speech made by Judge Niall McCarthy in the Supreme Court when he was delivering his judgment in the X case.

I’ve been surprised not to see that speech in print more often throughout the difficult debate we’ve been having, because there’s no doubt in my mind that it, and it alone, set out the questions that a legislator has to answer.

Speaking in 1992, he said: “In the context of the eight years that have passed since the Amendment was adopted … the failure by the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable. What are pregnant women to do? What are the parents of a pregnant girl under age to do? What are the medical profession to do?

They have no guidelines save what may be gleaned from the judgments in this case. What additional considerations are there? Is the victim of rape, statutory or otherwise, or the victim of incest, finding herself pregnant, to be assessed in a manner different from others?

The Amendment, born of public disquiet, historically divisive of our people, guaranteeing in its laws to respect and by its laws to defend the right to life of the unborn, remains bare of legislative direction.”

Not all those questions have been answered yet, that’s for sure. But Judge McCarthy can rest easy — you have legislated to the best of you’re ability within the constraints imposed by the Constitution.

Judge McCarthy described the issue in 1992 as divisive of our people, and so it remains. Time will tell if the legislative actions you have undertaken will open a floodgate of any sort. I profoundly believe they won’t, and that your actions over the past few weeks will come to be seen as a brave, necessary, but ultimately carefully limited step.

Now is the time to move on. There is one other outstanding medical injustice that needs your direct intervention, and your authority, to be resolved. It was your intervention, and that of the Tánaiste, in going to meet the Magdalene survivors that ultimately broke that logjam, and started the process that (hopefully) will lead to justice for that group of women (Although I word urge you to keep a close eye on progress, to ensure that the “system” doesn’t gradually succeed in backing away from your intentions).

The outstanding issue is symphysiotomy. I’ve written about that here before, but there are signs that the matter is coming to a head now. From everything I’ve learned about the subject, I believe there is massive bureaucratic resistance to a fair and just settlement for women who were subjected to this barbaric procedure.

Only the authority of the leaders of government can prevent a further injustice in this case — conversely, the exercise of good authority can lead to a fair outcome.

You will be familiar with the background to this case. Symphysiotomy is now widely regarded as a barbaric operation.

Carried out in Ireland because it was seen (in Catholic hospitals) as preferable to caesarean sections, it involved immense and often life-long damage, pain and indignity to the women who had to endure it. It was usually carried out without consent, and without any explanation about alternatives or consequences.

Taoiseach, as you know there was a much-criticised report on this subject by a UCC academic. That report was supposed to be in two parts, and I understand the second part is now available for publication.

Understandably, there is huge concern among survivors of the operation that this report may be used in some way to whitewash the past, or to prevent justice from being done.

But I believe you know what needs to happen now. When you spoke in the Dáil about the Magdalene women, you referred to “the culture back then” — the “order of the day” — “the terrible times that were in it”. “Yes,” you said, “by any standards it was a cruel, pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy.”

You went on to say that we live in a different Ireland now. An Ireland, in your words, with a very different consciousness and awareness.

An Ireland where we have more compassion, empathy, insight, and heart — because at last we are learning the terrible lessons of the past.

Symphysiotomy is the last remaining area where that insight and heart needs to be applied.

The major group representing survivors of that cruel and degrading treatment has offered to sit down with your government and negotiate, once and for all, a fair and just settlement with the State. A negotiated outcome would obviate the necessity for more protracted legal action, but more than that it would help to close another shaming chapter in the history of our treatment of women and children.

In this week, when yet another damning revelation arising from the Murphy report shows just how little regard was had for victims of abuse — and how much church and state colluded in that neglect and abuse — it’s surely time to end the collusion.

You have it in your gift, Taoiseach, to let a line shine on the last great issue of injustice where no redress has been made.

Now is the time to exercise your authority once again, to ensure that fair and reasonable negotiations are commenced. Then perhaps we could all look back on the past with our heads held a little higher.

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