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UN told symphysiotomy patients were 'operated upon wide awake and often screaming'

The Justice Minister defended the State redress scheme for survivors of symphysiotomy at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva today.

Marie O'Connor (File photo)
Marie O'Connor (File photo)
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

THE SURVIVORS OF Symphysiotomy GROUP has told the UN Human Rights Committee about the “extremely grave breach of human rights” experienced by its members.

Marie O’Connor, SoS Chairperson, said the group told the committee that the survivors’ human rights were breached as the procedures were carried out without their consent.

“Women were operated upon wide awake and often screaming: those who resisted were physically restrained.

“Ireland was the only country in the world to do these childbirth operations in preference to Caesarean section. Religious ideology and medical ambition drove the surgery.

“The State claims it was not liable but these operations were carried out by State employees, and done in private hospitals providing services on behalf of the State, under its supervision,” O’Connor noted.

Symphysiotomies were carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Irish hospitals from the 1940s to the 1980s – the procedure meant the women had their pelvises broken either before or during childbirth. About 300 survivors are still alive.

‘Dreadful situation’

Speaking in Geneva this afternoon, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald spoke to the committee about the ”dreadful situation” faced by symphysiotomy survivors in Ireland.

She defended the Government’s redress scheme, which has been rejected by SoS.

The package would award basic compensation of €50,000-€150,000 to women who underwent the procedure but would be ‘ex-gratia’ – in other words, no blame is admitted.

Fitzgerald said that the main advantage of the Government’s ex-gratia scheme for survivors is that it “offers a more flexible solution” in terms of the mix of monetary and non-monetary awards to applicants.

“This non-adversarial approach will also ensure that the women concerned will not have to pursue cases in the High Court or risk the burden of an adverse costs order. This seems particularly desirable given that a large percentage of the women are now aged between 75 and 91 years of age.”

She added that the women affected are receiving, and will continue to receive, a range of health and social care supports from the State. These include the provision of full general medical services (based on eligibility), independent clinical assessments, counselling, physiotherapy and home modifications where necessary.

Reform

During her speech, the minister also stated that:

Reform of police accountability and oversight mechanisms is my central priority.

“The Government has decided that a Garda Síochána Authority will be created. Just very recently, on 1 July last, the Government agreed the Heads and General Scheme of the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2014 which proposes a number of reforms to the remit, functions and operation of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.”

In her opening statement to the committee, Fitzgerald covered a wide range of topics, including the Magdalene Laundries, abortion, immigration, and the Roma community.

Earlier today, the Irish Human Rights Commission made an oral statement to the UN committee.

Roma Community

Fitzgerald, who was the Minister for Children until May, said that the Government is committed to “ensuring that our policies in the area of integration remain capable of responding to current and future challenges which an increasingly diverse society presents Ireland in which non Irish nationals now make up 12% of our population.”

She noted that a Review Group examining integration policy would report to her next year.

It is equally important that we address the particular needs of some of the more disadvantaged of our new communities. That applies in particular to the Roma community in Ireland.

Referencing the report by Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan into the removal of two Roma children from their families, Fitzgerald said that the document makes “some important recommendations which will guard against similar situations arising in the future and on how government services might better cater for the needs of the Roma community”.

She stressed that the “has not found that the Gardaí involved were motivated by conscious racism, or that there is evidence of institutionalised ethnic profiling”.

Magdalene Laundries

Fitzgerald informed the committee that the Government “fully accepted” the 2013 McAleese Report into the Magdalene Laundries.

“We have put in place on an ex-gratia basis, a scheme of payments and benefits for those women who were admitted to and worked in the Magdalen Laundries, St Mary’s Training Centre, Stanhope Street, and House of Mercy Training School, Summerhill, Wexford,” she stated.

File photo: Frances Fitzgerald to attend UN Human Rights Committee Frances Fitzgerald (File photo) Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Fitzgerald also said that the Government “accepts the need to amend the language in Article 41.2 of the Constitution on the role of women in the home”.

She added that the taskforce examining the issue was due to report back to the government by 31 October.

Abortion

Fitzgerald told the committee of the “significant recent developments in relation to access to lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland”.

“The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 has been enacted to regulate access to lawful termination in accordance with the X case and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the A, B and C v Ireland case.

“The purpose of the new legislation is to confer procedural rights on a woman who believes she has a life-threatening condition, so that she can have certainty as to whether she requires this treatment or not.”

Futzgerald said that the Act “upholds the right to life of the unborn where practicable”.

Abortion has been a highly politicised and divisive issue in Ireland for a number of decades. The question of the right to life of the unborn and the extent of that right has been the subject of five constitutional referenda held in 1983, 1992 and 2002.The issue of the extent of any entitlement to lawful abortion has been extensively debated in the political sphere.

She added that the question of abortion also was a factor that affected the electorate’s decision to vote against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

Transgender issues

Fitzgerald noted that the Gender Recognition Bill, which was approved by the Cabinet last month, is being progressed. The new legislation will allow approved by people aged 16 or 17, with their parent’s consent, to apply for a gender recognition certificate.

The Bill would allow transgender people to have legal recognition of their gender in all dealings with the State, as well as public bodies, and civil and commercial society.

This will be a very significant reform for a particularly vulnerable group of people.

Fitzgerald also spoke of the Government’s commitment to end discrimination against LGBT teachers, in relation to section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998.

She said that amendments to the relevant Bill will be published later in the year, with a view to the the legislation being passed before the end of 2014.

Domestic Violence

In her speech, Fitzgerald mentioned the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, which extended the application of domestic violence orders to civil partners.

She noted that further measures were introduced in 2011, including that a parent may now apply for a safety order against the other parent of their child, even where the parents do not live together and may never have lived together.

This ensures that the full protection of the law is available where access to a child is an occasion of intimidation or even violence between disputing parents.

The minister added that the Government would be developing a national plan for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, while the Workplace Relations Commission Bill will soon be published.

Originally published 3:51 pm.

Background: Austerity has ‘weakened’ the human rights of Ireland’s most vulnerable

Read: “Ethnic profiling” a factor in removal of Roma children, report finds

Read: Revised bill would allow people to legally change their gender at age 16 or 17

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