A C-Section Gone Medieval

by Dish Staff

The victims of a brutal procedure are finally getting some justice:

Petrified and in agony, Mary had been subjected to a symphysiotomy – a controversial operation that was seldom used in the rest of Europe after the mid-20th century, but which was carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Ireland between the 1940s and 1980s. The procedure involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint (or in extreme cases, called pubiotomy, sawing through the bone of the pelvis itself) to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered unobstructed.

Critics blame the continued use of the operation on a toxic mix of medical experimentation, Catholic aversion to caesarean sections and an institutional disregard for women’s autonomy.

They claim it has left hundreds of surviving women with life-long pain, disability and emotional trauma. For some in Ireland, it is yet another scandal perpetrated against women and girls, joining revelations over the Magdalene laundries (where “wayward” women were abused), the deaths of children at mother-and-baby homes and sex abuse in the Catholic church.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis: some doctors and historians argue that these criticisms fail to account for wider changes in medical culture. But this year the mothers who believe they were wronged finally got some encouraging news. In July, the UN Human Rights Committee called for the Irish government to hold an investigation into the issue. And last week saw the deadline pass for applications to the state’s ex gratia redress scheme, which offered women who have been through the procedure compensation sums of between £40,000 and £120,000. More than 300 women are said to have applied.

Their supporters say the moves are not before time. Mark Kelly of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties says that, despite having interviewed victims of torture, “this remains just one of the most appalling things that we have come across”. Nigel Rodley, chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, called the use of the operation without patients’ informed consent a “systematic assault”.