Feature

Ireland: The maimed and forgotten mothers

Irish doctors were long encouraged to treat difficult childbirths with a symphysiotomy, an operation that severs the pelvic joint.

Marie O’ConnorThe Irish Times

The imperative to bear as many children as possible crippled hundreds of Irishwomen, said Marie O’Connor. Catholic hospitals long encouraged doctors to treat difficult childbirths with a symphysiotomy, a “cruel and high-risk” operation that severs the pelvic joint, instead of a caesarean section. C-sections were seen as “morally hazardous” because women, it was thought, could have no more than four, “capping family size and leading to sterilization and contraception.” The church preferred the symphysiotomy because the procedure could widen the pelvis, “enabling an unlimited number of vaginal deliveries.” But when it went wrong, which was often, the women suffered chronic pain and incontinence, and many could barely walk. The operation “ruined lives and brought physical, emotional, and sexual devastation,” and the Irish state let it happen. Doctors in every other Western country shunned the operation, but in Ireland it was performed on some 1,500 women between 1944 and 2005. About 200 victims survive today, most of them disabled. Yet they can’t seek redress in the courts, because it only recently became public that these operations were unnecessary, long after the statute of limitations expired. Ireland is failing these victims of “abusive surgery.”

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