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Symphysiotomy survivors call on government to intervene in record shredding dispute

A group representing victims has called for the return of all documents submitted to a redress scheme.

Marie O'Connor of Survivors of Symphysiotomy
Marie O'Connor of Survivors of Symphysiotomy
Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated: 6.23pm

A GOVERNMENT REDRESS scheme for survivors of symphysiotomy has been urged to address the concerns of women who applied for compensation.

The scheme posted a note on its website in February advising applicants that they had until the end of the month to request that the medical documents they submitted for assessment be returned to them.

The notice said the scheme would assume applicants who have not made contact by then are happy to have their documents – other than original birth and baptism certificates – shredded when its work is complete.

Survivors who spoke out against the move said the scheme should have gone to greater efforts to ensure applicants see the return of their documents – some of which they say are original, decades-old hospital and GP files.

Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS), a group representing women subjected to the controversial procedure, also objected to the records being held for collection at the Department of Health.

Marie O’Connor of SOS previously told TheJournal.ie that several applicants to the scheme were involved in litigation against the state and that the arrangement could potentially disadvantage them in upcoming legal action.

The scheme later moved the deadline to last Sunday and said all applicants would instead be sent a form by post on which they can indicate their preference.

An update posted on its website this week thanked women who responded to the letter.

“When the scheme has completed its work, it will return or confidentially shred the documentation you furnished to the scheme strictly in accordance with your wishes,” the notice said.

Outstanding claims

O’Connor yesterday called on the government to intervene in the dispute, telling Oireachtas members at a briefing that fewer than one third of nearly 750 survivors had responded to the “shred or return” letter sent out by the scheme assessor.

O’Connor added in a statement that applicants were not in a position to fully consent to a decision on the matter while their applications were still being assessed.

“Consent must be freely given to be valid. Survivors are being asked for consent to the destruction or return of their records while their claims are under scrutiny and their payments outstanding.”

Consent given under duress is invalid.

SOS maintains that documents were entrusted to the scheme on the understanding that they would eventually be returned by post.

The terms of the scheme state that “the assessor shall, where reasonably possible, arrange for the return to the applicant or her solicitor” of any submitted documents.

The assessor also has the power, however, to “arrange for the destruction of confidential documentation and information whether in documentary or electronic form” once the scheme is concluded.

Symphysiotomy was carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Ireland up to the 1980s, long after being discontinued in other jurisdictions.

The controversial operation involved cutting the cartilage of a pregnant women’s pelvic bone – or breaking the bone itself in some extreme cases – to widen the birth canal.

Many women subjected to the procedure were left with long-term medical difficulties including incontinence and chronic pain.

The government established a redress scheme to compensate survivors following years of campaigning.

Women injured during the operation have been able to claim for one of three categories of funding: €50,000, €100,000 and €150,000.

‘It’s their choice’

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said in a statement that all documents submitted by women were copies.

The statement said: “No original documents are being dispensed with.

It is also very important to emphasise that it is up to each woman to decide as an individual whether she wants the documents returned to her or confidentially disposed of. This is being done in line with data protection laws and the right to privacy.

“Many women may not want others looking at their personal papers under any circumstances, now or ever. It’s their choice.”

It added that 576 applications have been submitted to the scheme and that more than 350 awards totalling over €26 million have already been made.

“No woman was obliged to apply for payment, or must accept any offer made to them. Every woman is completely free to pursue her case in court if she prefers,” the statement read.

The scheme did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

- with reporting by Órla Ryan

Read: Why are the medical records of the symphysiotomy victims being destroyed?

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

About the author:

Catherine Healy

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