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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 23 October, 2014

Symphysiotomy couple want to find their child’s burial place

There will be no closure with money – only with finding out where their child’s remains are.

Image: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Archive

YESTERDAY, THE GOVERNMENT announced a €34 million ex-gratia scheme for women who had symphysiotomies performed on them during childbirth.

At the same time, Cabinet published two reports into the practices which were continued in hospitals in Ireland until 1984, much later than other jurisdictions.

The procedures were replaced by Caesarean Sections in most hospitals in the mid-1960s but continued until 1984 at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.

Health Minister James Reilly said he recognised the “pain and suffering” of the women, adding that he hopes the awards of between €50,000 and €150,000 will “draw a line under the issue” and give them closure.

For one couple though, closure will not come in monetary form.

In her report into the best way to deal with the legacy issue, Judge Yvonne Murphy detailed the wish of one couple who are yet to find out the burial place of their child.

Their baby was delivered, stillborn, in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda but they have no record of where it was buried.

They told Judge Murphy that they would not have closure unless the burial place is discovered.

“It is extremely important that they be told where their infant is buried and any pressure that could be put to bear in that regard would be very much appreciated by them,” she wrote.

Responding to a question from TheJournal.ie, Reilly said he would “fully subscribe” to the judge’s sentiment that everything should be done to identify the resting place.

The Department of Health officials also urged anybody else in a similar position to contact local liaison officers who can deal with specific queries.

Another couple who had attended the National Maternity Hospital found their baby’s plot in Deansgrange Cemetery in Dublin after a “long search”.

They visited the grave and were “very satisfied that it was being well maintained”.

Government response

Speaking in the Dáil on the matter last night, Enda Kenny said the publication of the reports was “another example of a legacy issue” being dealt with by the coalition. 

“The Minister wanted to get this right,” he added. “Many of these women are elderly. They have been waiting for decades for closure. It’s another element of what we’ve to deal with here. From Magdalenes, to mother and baby homes, to all of these issues that have been lying around for years.

“This was an absolutely barbaric treatment,” he added, slapping the pages in front of him. “And I’m glad today it came before government.”

Reilly also referenced the length of time that survivors had been campaigning for closure, as the issue first came to light in newspaper reports in 2002.

“This is not the act of a cynical government,” he said to accusations that there was a timing issue with the scheme. “This is a government who cares.”

He also noted that it was particularly painful for him, as a doctor, to see what happened to these women at childbirth.

Proposed scheme

The ex-gratia scheme will be administered by the State Claims Agency, which believes it will be ready to take applications in about eight weeks time.

The over 300 victims who are still alive will be divided into three categories. The first, which covers about 100 women, will be offered €50,000. They were women who underwent the surgery but recovered from injuries within 18 months.

The second grouping will have to prove lifelong, complex conditions arising as a result of the procedure. This will be the majority of the group, at an estimated 240 women.

The final 10 women will receive €150,000 under the scheme. They are mothers who were identified as having ‘on the way out’ symphysiotomies. These were performed after their babies were delivered by Caesarean Section.

The government said in these cases it supports the Supreme Court’s position that the procedure was “indefensible and wrong”.

Statistics

While symphysiotomies went out of fashion in most European hospitals in the mid-20th century (and even earlier in some), they were still relatively common in the Dublin maternity hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Coombe saw 164 of the procedures in the 1950s, with a peak of 32 in 1956 alone. They started to phase out from 1962 and the last five were performed in 1963.

About 211 of the surgeries were recorded in the National Maternity Hospital in the 1950s, a number that fell to 64 the following decade.

They were always quite rare in the Rotunda, however, with seven carried out in the 1960s and 17 in the 1950s.

Numbers in Drogheda were much higher later than the Dublin hospitals. In the 1960s, 160 symphysiotomies were carried out. And in the 1970s, the corresponding figure was still up at 62.

Parallels were drawn at the conference yesterday to the Michael Neary scheme that was also administered by the State Claims Agency after revelations about his practices on his patients.

However, Reilly said it was not appropriate to talk about the disgraced doctor in terms of this issue.

He said that in hospitals where just one or two doctors were practicing, without continued education and development, they can “go off the rails”.

What next?

The three groups which represent the victims will discuss options with their members about their best course of action.

Some may still wish to pursue legal action, and therefore will not be able to avail of the scheme as it carries a condition that all suits are dropped.

Survivors of Symphysiotomy said it was “disappointed” in the handling of this “particular abuse of women in childbirth”.

“Truth has been the main casualty,” said chairperson Marie O’Connor. “The official lie, that symphysiotomy was acceptable medical practice, continues. The draft whitewash report commissioned by the Department of Health has now been reissued: all of its defective findings still stand, apparently.”

The group, however, will consider the issue of compensation and ask its members for direction on policy.

Read: ‘I was just 27 and I was butchered’: Symphysiotomy survivors in their own words

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