To vote against symphysiotomy bill would be a betrayal of victims

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote here that the Taoiseach’s apology to the women who had survived the hardship and abuse of the Magdalene Laundries represented significant social progress, for which he deserved a lot of congratulations.

It was heartfelt and sincere. In fact it was clear that in the time between his botched statement in the Dáil and the detailed apology he made, he had learned a lot. His meetings with the Magdalene women had clearly made a huge impression on him.

It was also clear at the time that the Taoiseach’s statement represented unfinished business for our State and our political system. Indeed, in his earlier attempt to address the issue of the Magdalene women — the one that he was much criticised over — the Taoiseach said in the Dáil that he was sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment. He went on to say “we have seen what happened to the women who underwent symphysiotomies, or Thalidomide victims, or those who were in mental hospitals — or lunatic asylums as they were referred to in those days — or many other places.”

Well, this week, the Taoiseach and the Government have an opportunity to begin to address some of that unfinished business, and I hope they take it. Tomorrow night the Dáil will vote on a piece of legislation, designed to open a door for women who suffered the barbaric treatment known as symphysiotomy.

The Bill, proposed by Sinn Féin’s Caoimhin Ó Caoláin, has one essential purpose — to set aside the statute of limitations for one year, to enable women who had suffered symphysiotomies to commence proceedings. It’s a modest and carefully drafted piece of legislation, closely modelled on an earlier law that made the same exception for people who had suffered sexual abuse. I don’t believe there is any intention to embarrass the government or to score points. I’m not a Sinn Féin supporter, as you know. But Caoimhin Ó Caoláin last year sat aside his natural opposition instincts to stand four-square with the Taoiseach and the Government during the children’s rights referendum. In fact very few people campaigned as vigorously as he did for that vital change.

In proposing this bill now, he has every right to ask the Government to look at it objectively, and compassionately. He has every right to remind the Taoiseach that this is one of the dark corners of Ireland’s past about which the Taoiseach spoke so eloquently during the Magdalene debate. Today, as the Taoiseach told the Dáil on Feb 19, “we live in a very different Ireland with a very a different consciousness and awareness. … We do, because at last we are learning those terrible lessons. We do, because at last we are giving up our secrets. We do, because in naming and addressing the wrong, as is happening here today, we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future.”

One of those wrongs was symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy is a childbirth operation that severs one of the main pelvic joints, separating the pubic bones and unhinging the pelvis. It was carried out under a local anaesthetic, and was used in Irish hospitals, long after it had been abandoned elsewhere, as an alternative to Caesarian sections. There is no record of a patient’s consent being sought for the operation, or of any patient seeking the operation.

The operation frequently went wrong. And when it did, it caused life-long damage and pain to the mothers who endured it. There are several hundred women in Ireland, many of them now elderly, who have endured a lifetime of pain and frequently indignity as a result of the operation. There are two key, uncontestable, facts about the operation. The first is that it was almost never necessary. Some doctors believed that it would make childbirth easier in the future, and do away with the possible need for caesarean sections.

And the second is that none of the women knew, or were told at the time, what had been done to them, and what the possible consequences were. If things went wrong, and the women suffered years of incontinence as a result no doctor and no hospital ever admitted that that was a result of a botched procedure.

There has been a campaign about this for some years now. It’s a poorly funded campaign, because there are no rich victims. (Oddly, the operation appears only to have been carried out on public patients in hospitals with a strong Catholic ethos.) Government responses have been limited in the extreme. There were some expressions of sympathy, although Michael Martin when he was minister for health resolutely refused an enquiry. Eventually the then minister for health Mary Harney commissioned a study of the practice.

There’s a first draft of the report of that study, which has been prepared by Dr Oonagh Walsh of UCC. She was not the first person commissioned to do the study – two other teams withdrew.

Her study, carried out under terms of reference given to her by Mary Harney, has been roundly and comprehensively criticised by survivors. It’s not hard to see why. The study is in two parts. In the first (the only one published so far), Dr Walsh draws her conclusions. In the second (not yet commenced) she proposes to consult with survivors and others, before making recommendations.

THIS is bizarre. It’s clear from reading Dr Walsh’s first report that all her conclusions are based on essentially desk-based research — databases searched, requests to libraries (libraries!), hospitals asked for their records, and so on. And at the bottom of the description of her research methods, Dr Walsh notes: “Maternity hospitals were not required to produce annual reports in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s so no firm statistics are available”.

Perhaps not surprisingly — especially given the fact that she never met a single survivor as part of the original research, nor ever read an individual patient file, the overall effect of Dr Walsh’s research is to minimise the incidence of and the reasons for the procedure.

To any objective reader, I’d suggest that the fault here is with the terms of reference. To ask any researcher to draw conclusions on the basis of such sketchy data, without looking at individual case notes or meeting patients, is tantamount to a decision that “we really don’t want to know”.

But there is every sign that the Minister for Health and the Government might decide, in the face of Caoimhin Ó Caoláin’s bill, to close ranks behind the Walsh report. If they decide to vote the bill down because the final Walsh report isn’t ready yet, that would be a genuine scandal.

And worse, it would be a betrayal of what Enda Kenny told the Dáil a few short weeks ago. We live in a different Ireland now, he said then. If that’s true, this bill will be passed. And the door will open, at least a little bit, for one more group of people cruelly treated by Ireland’s dark past.

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