Campaigners demand 'the truth' about forced symphysiotomies

Campaigners demand 'the truth' about forced symphysiotomies

Marie O'Connor is chairwoman of Survivors of Symphysiotomy. Picture: Moya Nolan

A landmark United Nations Human Rights Committee judgement which called for Ireland to launch criminal investigations into forced symphysiotomies is an important step towards truth for survivors, campaigners say.

Those who carried out these damaging operations in the name of Catholic doctrine are now understood to be deceased, and therefore cannot face prosecution, Marie O'Connor, chairperson of support group Survivors of Symphysiotomy said.

But investigations could cast light on the long-term damage these operations did to women in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1980s.

And as a quasi-judicial body, the UN judgement will also feed into jurisprudence which should benefit Irish women taking individual complaints to the UN about their subjection to forced symphysiotomies.

Ms O'Connor said that many women have felt forced to pursue justice internationally through the UN because “the possibilities inside Ireland are limited for truth and justice to emerge”.

In a symphysiotomy, doctors sliced through the cartilage and ligaments of the pelvic joints to widen the pelvis for vaginal birth. The women then, in excruciating pain, had to deliver their babies.

Although widely shunned internationally, symphysiotomies were carried out instead of the safer Caesarean section from the 1940s to the 1980s in Ireland.  

At the time it was believed that no more than four Caesarean surgeries could be performed safely. But the Catholic Church opposed contraception which may be needed to limit family size to avoid more than Caesarean sections, so some Irish hospitals used symphysiotomies as a way of avoiding that much safer option.

Incontinence, mobility problems and chronic pain are just some of the life-changing side effects these women had to live with.

But the State effectively denied that these horrific operations were carried out to comply with Catholic doctrine, suggesting that doctors used them only in emergency situations.

The UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns about the State's failure to clearly recognise the motivation of this “deliberate and systematic practice” without women’s prior knowledge or informed consent.

The State had suggested they were only carried out in emergencies and therefore consent could not be obtained.

It recommended that the State take a survivor-centred and trauma-informed approach to investigating all allegations of abuse and prosecute suspected perpetrators.

It also recommended that the State removes the requirement to sign a legal waiver against further legal recourse in order to receive compensation.

 Marie O'Connor is a symphysiotomy survivor. Picture: Moya Nolan
Marie O'Connor is a symphysiotomy survivor. Picture: Moya Nolan

“The Government this year made a very determined effort to mislead the UN Human Rights Committee. The Government said formally, in writing, that they couldn’t accept that the doctors who performed these operations should now be punished," Ms O'Connor said.

“They suggested that these operations were done in emergencies therefore consent could not be obtained. The implication here is that there was no wrongdoing. That is the official position.

“So for us to get the concluding observations was wonderful, because it pushed on the narrative. 

They called for a criminal investigation which has its own very clear implications.

“They [the UN] effectively castigated the government and condemned the State for refusing, as they said, to acknowledge or accept the underlying motivation [for symphysiotomies].

“This is again taking it to a new level because there you have a very, very clear implication that these operations were done for religious reasons. 

They could not be justified medically.

“We know it [symphysiotomy] was done for religious reasons, because these doctors disliked caesarean section. 

“As they said in the concluding observations, it was the deliberate and systematic practice.

“Symphysiotomy did not deliver a baby. The woman was still in labour after the operation but now her pain was intensified because she was faced with delivering the baby against a partially collapsed pelvis.

“We have individual complaints being submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee and these are landmark decisions for us.

Survivors and supporters at a protest outside the Department of An Taoiseach on Merrion Street before handing in a letter for the Taoiseach in 2014. Picture: Sam Boal/
Survivors and supporters at a protest outside the Department of An Taoiseach on Merrion Street before handing in a letter for the Taoiseach in 2014. Picture: Sam Boal/

“It’s really important that the truth about these grossly abusive operations comes out.

“It’s not done until the truth comes out. Women are entitled to the truth. Hopefully we can look forward to a day when judgement on the practice will be handed down.

Hundreds of survivors are still alive and battling serious health implications from the surgery.

"It’s a horror story and it’s disappointing that there were never any apologies by the State or for wrongdoing,”
Ms O'Connor said. 

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