Symphysiotomy survivors’ groups welcome expert review

A SURVIVORS’ group has welcomed the appointment of an international expert who will review a surgical procedure that condemned hundreds of women to a lifetime of pain and suffering.

Professor Kenneth Bjorklund from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, has accepted an invitation from the Department of Health's chief medical officer to carry out the review of the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland.

A symphysiotomy is a surgical procedure to permanently widen the pelvis of a woman who might normally require repeat caesarean sections.

Survivors of the procedure say they have been left with back and leg pain, incontinence, mental trauma and problems associated with never being able to bond with their baby.

A spokesperson for the Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) said Prof Bjorklund would have his work cut out for him medical files were missing and many women were still unaware that the surgical procedure had been performed on them.

Also, a number of women who had the procedure between the 1950s and 1980s have since died. Other survivors were just too ashamed to come forward.

The SOS spokesperson said only 150 women who had symphysiotomies had come forward so far.

Some survivors are even too ashamed to tell close family members about what happened to them.

Mary (not her real name) said she only found out two years ago that she underwent a symphysiotomy after her first baby was born by an emergency caesarean section 33 years ago.

She was only 18 years old at the time and the procedure was carried out immediately after the caesarean section to dramatically increase the size of her pelvic outlet to permit the delivery of future children.

"I never had any more children after that. I was just too scared. I thought that I would die if I had another caesarean section. But it was not the section at all, it was the symphysiotomy," she said.

"What happened to me was criminal because there was no justification for it. It was an abuse of my body."

Mary went home unable to walk and believing that the caesarean section was to blame. She suffers permanent back pain and is incontinent.

"It was when I got pains in my feet three years ago that I realised that women who had symphysiotomies experienced the same symptoms."

Mary, now 52, tracked down her medical records and discovered that a symphysiotomy was performed on her immediately after the cut for the caesarean section was stitched.

Health Minister Micheál Martin recently outlined a range of measures being implemented to support SOS and ensure the health needs of the women they represent are met.

However, the SOS spokesperson said that they were still waiting for a national helpline to be established, almost a year after Mr Martin agreed it should be included in the package of health measures.

Outlining the position in the Dáil recently, Mr Martin said the Eastern Regional Health Authority (ERHA) and the health boards in consultation with SOS would review the question of a national helpline.

Mr Martin said it had been agreed with the survivors' group late last year to prioritise the women's health care needs.

He said an information leaflet, prepared with the ERHA and the health boards, in consultation with the SOS, would be issued to general practitioners and patients soon.

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence