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European Court of Human Rights declares complaints by Irish symphysiotomy victims as inadmissible

The three women from Dublin, Cork and Meath had sought damages from the State.

Image: Shutterstock/Suwit Rattiwan

THE EUROPEAN COURT of Human Rights (ECHR) has declared that complaints against the State by three Irish women who underwent surgical symphysiotomies are inadmissible.

The women, who had the procedure carried out on them in Irish maternity hospitals in the 1960s, had sought damages from the State after also complaining that symphysiotomies had not been the subject of a Government-led investigation.

One of the three also complained that the State had failed in its obligation to protect women from inhuman and degrading treatment by allowing symphysiotomies to take place.

About 1,500 symphysiotomies were carried out in Ireland between 1941 and 1987.

The procedure was carried out on pregnant women before, during or after birth in place of a Caesarean Section. It involved breaking the patient’s pelvis and leaving it permanently enlarged.

Women, many of whom were in their early 20s or teenagers and having their first child, later suffered chronic pain, incontinence, walking difficulties, sexual problems and other issues for their entire lives as a result of the procedure.

Survivors’ groups have since contended that the operations were carried out by doctors because of “religious zealotry”.

They said that because C-Sections were associated with sterilisation and contraception, doctors hostile to birth control sought to widen the pelvis to enable future childbearing without limitation.

Three women from Dublin, Cork and Meath took cases to the ECRH after complaining that they had been precluded from making claims before the Irish courts over the procedure, which they said were carried out without their consent.

They also argued that there has never been an independent and thorough investigation into the use of the procedure in Ireland.

In a judgment delivered this morning, the ECRH unanimously declared that the their complaints against the State were inadmissible.

In one case, the ECHR found the complaint to be inadmissible because the applicant had failed to exhaust remedies through the Irish system.

That woman complained that the State had failed in its obligation to protect women from a medical procedure which in her view constituted inhuman and degrading treatment.

However, the court ruled that although the woman had brought civil proceedings against the hospital where she had the procedure, she had not effectively argued that her rights had been violated to the extent that she was prevented from making any effective complaint about the symphysiotomy.

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In the other two cases, the ECHR found the womens’ complaints to be “manifestly ill-founded”, also indicating that there were questions about whether they had fully exhausted remedies through the Irish system.

The court said that Ireland had “not remained inactive in the face of the considerable controversy surrounding the use of symphysiotomies in its maternity hospitals”.

It noted that there had been an independent investigation carried out by the government in the form of a report which was commissioned in 2011.

The court further noted that in 2014, the Minister for Health announced the establishment of an ex-gratia payment scheme offering compensation to women who had undergone a surgical symphysiotomy in any hospital in Ireland between 1940 and 1990.

The ECHR found that these factors sufficed to meet any obligation the State might have been under to provide redress to the women.

The court added that there had been no failure to provide the applicants with access to effective proceedings allowing them to claim compensation.

With reporting from Sinead O’Carroll.

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