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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 1 August, 2014

Symphysiotomy survivors call for statute bar to be set aside

A Bill will be debated in the Dáil next week.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

SURVIVORS OF SYMPHYSIOTOMY, a painful surgical procedure used in maternity hospitals across Ireland in the 20th century, gathered in Dublin today to call on the government to support a Bill setting aside the statute bar so they can bring their fight for justice to the courts.

Currently, the statute of limitations on personal injury in Ireland is just two years but many of the women were unaware of the cause of their pain for decades.

The surgery, which involved breaking the pelvis, was often performed in Irish hospitals as an alternative to Caesarean sections. Mothers who underwent symphysiotomies often complain of walking difficulties, chronic back pain and incontinence.

According to the Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) group, the operations were carried out without prior knowledge or consent “mainly for religious reasons, by obstetricians who were opposed to family planning”.

“Omerta reigned: regulators look the other way.  The breaking of the pelvis left many women disabled, in pain, incontinent, their family lives damaged, their babies occasionally injured, sometimes fatally.”

Up to 200 women – many who are in their 70s and 80s – want to ask the courts for compensation over the continued use of the discredited procedure.

SOS claims passing the Bill, which will be debated in the Dáil on 16 April, is “the only practical measure” available to make amends for the “horrendous abuse suffered in Irish hospitals”.

“Doing so would help speed up the legal process for litigants who are in their 70s and 80s, many of whom have suffered a lifetime of ill heath as a result of this gratuitous surgery.”

Sinn Féin’s health correspondent Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has convened an all-party Oireachtas support group for the victims. He has called on the Taoiseach to embrace the legislation to set aside the bar for one year only.

“”The overwhelming majority of those subjected to symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were young women having their first child whose knowledge of childbirth was extremely limited. Many did not realise that the injuries they suffered were other than the normal effects of childbirth,” he explained at today’s conference.

“Nor did they understand, for many years, and in most cases decades later, that these deleterious consequences were the result of childbirth operations that had been performed on them without their knowledge or consent, for these were, in effect, clandestine operations, which were concealed from them by sections of the medical profession.”

As a consequence of this lack of knowledge, some survivors have never initiated proceedings, nor even sought professional advice, while others only did so, in very many cases, decades after the wrongful acts to which they were subjected were committed.

The bill is based on the precedent of the Statute of Limitations Act 2000, which lifted the bar for sexual abuse victims of residential institutions.

More than 75 per cent of the procedures were committed at insured private hospitals that are still liable for injuries received. The country’s final symphysiotomy was performed in Our Ladies of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda in 1984.

Although many victims are willing to engage with legal processes, other survivors continue to await the final Walsh Report commissioned to examine the practice. Its publication is due shortly.

Interview: ‘I didn’t know if my baby was dead or alive for two days’

Read: Symphysiotomy survivors gather to recount stories of torture

More: Government to consider special law to allow legal claims by symphysiotomy victims

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