Symphysiotomy survivors demand inquiry

By Deborah Condon

Irish women who unknowingly underwent symphysiotomies, an operation performed during childbirth between the 1950s and 1980s, are demanding a public inquiry into the practise, which they say, has left them with severe side effects, including extreme pain, incontinence and depression.

A symphysiotomy is a surgical procedure which is carried out to permanently widen the pelvis of a woman who might normally require repeat Caesarean sections. The cartilage of the symphysis pubis, which is  the point where the pubic bones come together, is surgically divided during the procedure.

According to support group, Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS), Irish obstetricians sought to establish this operation as an alternative to Caesarean sections because it was thought that women subjected to repeated Caesareans 'might be tempted to use contraception'.

SOS is now demanding answers as to why women were subjected to this procedure without their consent and in many cases, without their knowledge.

Rose, now aged 57, was 17 and pregnant with her first child when she went into labour on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, a doctor told her that her baby would soon be delivered. She was given what she later learned was a local anaesthetic and was then unknowingly subjected to a symphysiotomy.

"The pain was excruciating. My arms were pinned down by nurses and my legs were held up, like the way you would hold a turkey", she explained.

After the procedure, when Rose had woken up, she was obviously eager to see her baby, who was in a nursery next door to her ward. However when she tried to stand up, she fainted with the pain and was told not to attempt to get up again. Rose ended up crawling on her hands and knees that night in a desperate attempt to see her baby, before a doctor found her and told a nurse to get a wheelchair for her.

A couple of days later, two nurses came to 'teach me how to walk again'. She was let out of hospital 10 days after the birth, while her baby remained there for a month. Rose, whose partner died nine years ago, did go on to have more children. However her life has been marked by chronic pain and anger at what has happened to her.

"I have spent 40 years locked up for having a baby. I kept having to give up jobs because of the pain. I have never been on a holiday and I never go out. I have to wear sanitary towels all the time because of bladder problems. I have been to a psychiatrist and I am eventually going to be left on my own in a wheelchair", she said.

Another survivor, Claire who was 29 and pregnant with her fifth child, was initially told she needed a Caesarean section, but was later told this was not necessary. Referring to what happened in the delivery room, she said she felt as though a 'red, hot poker' had been passed through her, the pain was so excruciating. She passed out and when she awoke, she was told that there had been complications, her pelvis had been broken and she would be in bed for five days. She was also told she would have to learn how to walk again.

"I was never followed up. I was never told that I would not be able to hold or nurse my baby. That child was raised in a pram because I couldn't hold him, the pain was so bad. I couldn't even play with him. It is 31 years later and I want answers", she said.

SOS has requested a meeting with Health Minister, Micheal Martin, to discuss the situation. However to date, Mr Martin has failed to agree to meet with the organisation. SOS believes a public inquiry is necessary in order to determine:

-Why symphysiotomies were carried out when alternatives were available.

-Why the procedure was carried out here so often, compared to other European countries.

-Why no-one has been held accountable for the suffering of the women involved.

-Why this procedure was carried out without these women's consent.

Apart from the inquiry, SOS would also like to see the establishment of a counselling service and helpline. It also believes that those affected should be provided with home help and home modifications where necessary.

"There are a lot of women in wheelchairs and housebound because of this. Who is going to look after them?", the organisation added.


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