Irish Medical News


The legacy of symphysiotomy


Ms Marie O’Connor,

Dublin 7

The eloquence of the Taoiseach’s proclamation of a new republic has rightly been lauded. He now needs to ensure that this is “a Republic of laws, rights and responsibilities” for all citizens. Now is the time to end the 10-year cover up of an abuse of women in childbirth that began in McQuaid’s Ireland.

Devotees of symphysiotomy disliked Caesarean; four sections was widely seen as the upper safety limit. Catholic obstetricians, such as Alex Spain, Arthur Barry, John Kevin Feeney, and Gerard Connolly were prepared to split a woman’s pelvis rather than countenance the “crime” of “birth-prevention”, as McQuaid termed it. Several were Knights of Columbanus and his intimates. Former Holles St Hospital Master John Cunningham, for example, was McQuaid’s porte-parole during the Mother and Child Scheme negotiations.

Curiously, it was a text of Cunningham’s that the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (IOG) relied upon to support its contention that symphysiotomy was a norm for obstructed labour in a pre-Caesarean era. This 1959 text, which was sent to the Department in 2001 by IOG Chairman Dr John Bonnar, undermines that theory.

In it, Cunningham explains why, despite the “success of modern caesarean section, in Roman Catholic countries, efforts to perfect the operation [of symphysiotomy] have been sustained. Contraception and sterilisation are not countenanced by those who subscribe to the Catholic rule”.

For over a decade, therefore, the State has been on notice that symphysiotomy was performed, not for medical, but for religious reasons. Ignoring this and other evidence to the contrary, the Department has stood over the myth perpetrated by the IOG that the surgery was done out of medical necessity. The Dáil, in consequence, has been misinformed by successive ministers, captured by a department whose deference to the IOG knows no bounds.

Following the publication on June 21 of my report “Bodily Harm: Symphysiotomy and pubiotomy in Ireland 1944–92,” the Department “announced” an “independent inquiry”. This exercise, which began on June 1 (and is due in September), is governed by IOG terms of reference and was entrusted to an IOG-approved researcher.

It is now time to rend the veil on these religiously motivated operations,  1,500 of which were reportedly carried out, mostly in Catholic hospitals.

Up to 200 women, many in their 70s and 80s, unable to walk, incontinent and in pain, are waiting for the republic to dawn for them, a republic that will no longer tolerate or ignore “the delinquencies and arrogance of a particular kind of morality”.


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