MICHAEL CLIFFORD: The State broke their bodies not their spirit

IF THE women had been men, they might have resembled a gathering of old soldiers, survivors from some forgotten war.

They moved slowly, these women. Some had difficulty walking. Many were of advanced age, but that alone did not account for their restricted movement. Quite obviously, more than a few were in pain. They had lived with that pain since they were young women, when agents of this State mutilated their bodies to control them.

More than 100 of these women gathered in the Lighthouse Cinema, in Dublin’s Smithfield Plaza, last Tuesday morning. The occasion was the launch of a powerful, compelling documentary about their plight, and that of other women who have no voice. Mothers Against The Odds is made by Esperanza productions, which is run by Ronan Tynan and Anne Daly and has a sterling record in making films about the developing world. Except this film is not concerned with a foreign country, but with the different country that is the past. No person at the screening could have known it, but within 24 hours a story would break that demonstrated that the past is not behind us in our treatment of pregnant women.

‘Symphysiotomy’ is a word that doesn’t roll off the tongue. For decades, at least 1,500 women in this country were unaware that symphysiotomy had been performed on them. It’s a painful procedure that involves opening a woman’s pelvis during childbirth, severing the area known as the symphysis pubis.

The side-effects include chronic pain, severe back pain, and incontinence. The procedure ruined many lives, through physical, emotional and sexual devastation. Worst of all, the women, in echo of the plight of people poisoned by bad blood transfusions, had no idea what had happened to them.

Their permission, or that of their partners or husbands, was not sought. They were never told what had been done. In a State darkened by ignorance, many of them thought the procedure and its after-effects were merely part of normal childbirth.

The procedure was introduced in 1942 and performed as an alternative to a Caesarian-section. Its use was primarily driven by the ethos of the Catholic Church, as interpreted in this State.

C-sections were seen as caps on the size of families, since a mother who had the procedure was restricted to having four children, at most. At the time, and for decades after, women were expected to continue reproducing, and were under no circumstances to avail of contraception. Restricting a family to four children was regarded in Church circles as a condemnation.

A draft report recently compiled by the Department of Health found that symphysiotomy in the 1940s “was considered to be the most suitable thing to do, in order to obey the laws of the time. The law, between 1944 and 1984, was very much influenced by the teachings of the Catholic Church”.

Women suffered the barbarity of the procedure so Ireland remained pure and religious. In fact, the existence of the procedure was not made widely known until it was discovered by an academic researcher in 1999.

Mothers Against The Odds opens up the secretive world in which the women were painfully violated. It includes interviews with an elderly man, who recalls the mores of the time and the lowly position of women in the societal hierarchy. A woman who worked as a midwife in Dublin in the middle decades of the last century recalls the horrors she witnessed, but her courage in a time of living darkly also lifts the spirit. There are also contributions from survivors, who tell of their experience and pain.

A comparison is made with women in the developing world today. In Kenya, women in childbirth are treated with the same disdain, bordering on contempt, that some in this country suffered in the dark decades of the last century. As Anne Daly, who wrote the documentary, said: “We learned more about Ireland in Kenya than we did in Ireland.”

Ignorance hasn’t gone away, it’s merely shifted east, to countries struggling out of their own darkness.

One in five mothers die in childbirth in that African state. The grinding poverty, combined with the continuing influence of religion in most areas, ensures that many women are regarded as little more than functionaries of reproduction. It’s a shocking indictment of the world today, but, in a media age like ours, ignorance can no longer be offered as an excuse.

Further echoes of former days here can also be heard in Mothers Against The Odds. Some countries in the developing world are introducing symphysiotomy as a cheaper alternative to C-sections. How that barbarity could be contemplated today is unimaginable, and it’s also an issue that aid-agencies would do well to grasp.

After the screening, a number of survivors spoke. Their pain was palpable, but there was also a sense of togetherness — the survivors have networked with each other over the last decade.

Despite what the women have endured, they are still denied proper recognition. One report into symphysiotomy has been compiled by the Department of Health and a second one is due.

The requirement for a second report escapes many of the people connected with the 150 or so survivors. They don’t accept the draft findings of the first report, as it fails to acknowledge the extent of the assault committed on them. Precedent would suggest that the second report is merely a delaying tactic by a government that doesn’t want to deal with the issue.

Like others who fell victim to the State, the survivors appear to be meeting roadblocks wherever they turn. The only thing they want is for the statute of limitations to be lifted, so they can sue the State and receive proper recognition for what was inflicted on them. So far, despite Dáil debates and pledges of support in Leinster House, they have been met with resistance.

Anybody who sees Mothers Against The Odds will be both baffled and angered that these women have to continue to battle for recognition of what was done to them in childbirth.

Last week also brought home to the country that it’s not just in the past that prospective mothers are thrust into danger here.

For many people, the death of Savita Halappanavar signalled that the dark ages of women’s health are still not behind us. For 20 years, since the Supreme Court judgement in the X case, legislators have run away from putting into law measures that would elevate the health and welfare of mothers to a position they are entitled to in any civilised country.

In this regard, the past is not even behind us yet. There is still a long way to go before this country can pledge that it treats all its citizens with the respect that is supposed to be a right.

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