As a group of about 200 people flocked to a special documentary about symphysiotomy – a horrific and cruel practice carried out on hundreds of women in labour between 1910 and 1984 in Ireland – I noticed Rita McCann and her son in the crowd. In the spotless, ultra-cool setting of the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin, the petite 86-year-old woman was being helped down the giant wooden staircase by a tall, strong-looking and well-dressed middle-aged man. That must be her son, I thought.
A COUPLE OF hours later, Rita confirmed that, indeed, he was “the symphysiotomy”.
Although we laugh at the substitution of his name (it is Shane, by the way), her reaction – she pointed and giggled as she said it – is indicative of how the struggle for justice has consumed Rita’s life – and those of her fellow survivors – for the past decade.
It is 56 years since she gave birth to her eldest in Holles Street hospital but it is something that she will “never forget”.
Even though she has been telling her story for years – to countless newspapers, politicians, lawyers and anybody else who may be able to help – Rita still recounts it with fervour.
“I’m 86 now but there are a lot of these women who are much younger and I would like to give them support for as long as I can,” she explains. “But I’d also like to get it done before I disappear.”
I want something. Some recompense for what I went through.
Similar to the 100-odd other women who came together in the Dublin cinema this morning for the first public screening of a documentary about the barbaric practice, Rita is happy to share her memories about the cruelty and torture she suffered.
Remembering the week she was brought to Holles Street hospital, she says, “What puzzles me now is that there wasn’t a rush with me. I had gone in early, they tried to induce me on the sixth of the month but nothing happened and I was left until the 15th. Then they brought me down to a single birthing room on the 16th.
“They had a big audience. They were waiting to get as many students as they could get.”
The Monaghan native is still very clear about how much she was left in the dark that week; how little information was passed on to her or her now-late husband.
“I was having troubles obviously but I had never heard of symphysiotomy. I had heard of Caesarean but never that.
“During the operation, I couldn’t think of anything else (I was still conscious) but halfway through I asked, ‘Is the baby dead?’ and they said, ‘No, that would be later’.”
Rita was left for two days not knowing if her baby was a boy or a girl. Or if it was dead or alive.
I had lots of time to be told. I didn’t get to see my baby for two days. I didn’t think he was there. It was horrid…Even my husband and sister-in-law came in to say they had seen him but I didn’t believe them. I thought I was being lied to.
Rita was was never told about the symphysiotomy.
“One doctor sat up beside me and was talking to me and was probably there to make sure I wasn’t going to go berserk. They gave me an injection to sleep and I woke up with a mask over my face. I scattered two doctors and the mask.”
She recalls one of the doctors in the birthing room speaking up and saying the procedure was “very severe” but another said that she would forget it.
“I’m still remembering it,” she refutes, with a cock of the head and an eye-roll to heaven.
Not long after the birth, she picked up an infection and was confined to bed with a catheter.
“I was forced to go back to my parents,” she continues. “I couldn’t walk, couldn’t lift the baby. My sister had to come to collect me and phone my parents to warn them I couldn’t walk. They were in shock…It was six months before I could walk or look after the baby. And it’s just been ongoing since that.
“I suppose you never thought…I thought it was an odd thing that happened occasionally.”
Although she didn’t find out what exactly happened to her until newspaper reports about the frequency which the procedure was used in Irish hospitals started to emerge in 2002, Rita said she felt “horror and apprehension” at her next four births.
“My second pregnancy was a miscarriage…it was out of fear I lost the baby I believe.”
Another of Rita’s sons is now mentally disabled after being starved of oxygen during a “very stressful and traumatic” birth.
Shane, her eldest and “the symphysiotomy”, believes the surface has only been scratched where symphysiotomy is concerned.
“It was suppressed for so long. I think what hasn’t come out yet is the post-traumatic stress it caused, as well as the physical effects.”
His mother agrees that the psychological trauma was “far, far worse.”
The Catholic Church’s teaching on family planning and the idea that birth prevention was a crime has often been cited as a reason why the outdated procedures were favoured in some cases in maternity hospitals across Ireland. But Rita believes the buck stops with the doctors who were in that theatre that day.
No doctor should have been influenced by anything except for the medicine and the patient. It is very wrong no matter who influenced them.
Rita and Shane’s fight for State recognition and compensation is still ongoing.
The Survivors of Symphysiotomy group need the statute of limitations bar set aside so long-running procedural battles can be avoided. As Rita points out, many of them will not have the time. Some have already ran out of time and passed away.
But the McCanns have not lost hope. As we stand up to part ways, Rita laughs jovially and says, “See you in court.”
Mothers Against the Odds is a documentary film by Ronan Tynan and Anne Daly of Esperanza Productions. It examines the current experiences of Kenyan women as they go through childbirth, as well as the historic practices in Ireland’s maternity hospitals.
Symphysiotomy was a surgical procedure used in the 20th century that involves unhinging the woman’s pelvis and widening it by up to 3.5 cm. It was often used in Ireland as an alternative to the Caesarean Section as it was believed to facilitate future births. The final symphysiotomy was performed in Our Ladies of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda in 1984.