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Closing the book on institutional abuse

category national | rights, freedoms and repression | opinion/analysis author Thursday June 11, 2009 09:07author by Marie O'Connor

The severing of women's pelvises in childbirth

The severing of women's pelvises in childbirth for doctrinal rather
than medical reasons must rank as one of the biggest health scandals
in the history of the State, second only to the contamination of the
human blood supply. Only an independent inquiry into symphysiotomy can close this final, shameful chapter in the story of institutional abuse in Ireland.

The Ryan Report revealed sexual and physical abuse on a
monstrous scale in Ireland in the labour camps that were the
industrial and reform schools. Since its publication, we have come to
realise that without acknowledgement there can be no healing, without
redress, no closure.

These valuable lessons now need to be applied to two other areas.
'Prime Time's revelations of sexual abuse at the Lourdes Hospital have rightly
prompted renewed calls for an independent inquiry into the actions of
a surgeon accused of sexual abuse at the Lourdes over several decades.

But those same decades were also decades of medical abuse in that
hospital and others. From 1944-83, around 500 mothers had their
pelvises sundered by obstetricians seeking to control women's
reproductive behaviour through surgery. At a time when Caesarean
section was the surgery of choice for obstructed labour, these women
were subjected to an archaic operation that left them, literally,
unable to walk, and condemned them to a lifetime of chronic pain and
disability, and, in some cases, incontinence.

Moreover, children born by symphysiotomy were often injured. Some
face a lifetime of medical intervention in consequence.

Like physical and sexual abuse, symphysiotomy's legacy will be felt down through the
generations. This mutilating surgery left psychological as well as physical scars. It blighted sexual lives and occasionally
ended marriages. It complicated mother-child relationships and
divided families.

The severing of women's pelvises in childbirth for doctrinal rather
than medical reasons must rank as one of the biggest health scandals
in the history of the State, second only to the contamination of the
human blood supply.

Yet these women have been left without answers, without acknowledgement, without reparation.

The Minister for Health has twice refused to commission an
independent review their case, despite advice from the Human Rights Commission that such an inquiry is warranted. The Government should now
act on that advice.

‘Because it would open the floodgates’ is the usual excuse given by
government for inaction in such cases. But here, there are no
floodgates, only a small group of perhaps one hundred women. The rest
have taken their suffering to the grave in silence.

In the wake of the tsunami that is the Ryan Report, we owe it to those symphysiotomy mothers
still living and their families to close this final, shameful chapter of the story of institutional
abuse in Ireland.


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