Church influenced birth procedure, says report
A DRAFT report commissioned by the Government into the use of a controversial childbirth operation says one of the reasons it was used was to obey laws influenced by the Catholic Church that banned contraception and sterilisation.
It is estimated up to 1,500 women underwent symphysiotomies – an operation to widen the pelvis – between the mid-1940s and mid-1980s. The procedure has since been linked with lifelong health problems such as incontinence, chronic pain and mobility problems.
A draft report to be published by the Department of Health this week will show use of symphysiotomies was at its peak in Ireland when it had declined in the rest of Europe.
The independent report by Prof Oonagh Walsh of UCC will state that symphysiotomies were considered appropriate in emergencies during the 1940s and 1950s, when a mother could not safely deliver her baby. This was because of safety concerns about repeated Caesarean sections – associated with a higher number of deaths at the time – and the ban on contraception and sterilisation.
However, the report states some symphysiotomies were wrongly used.
Although some obstetricians heralded the operation as a solution to difficulties in labour, others refused to contemplate it because of fears for the long-term health of mothers.
“These reservations are reflected in the fact that even when use of the procedure was at its height in the mid-1950s, it remained a rare event relative to overall deliveries, and was never utilised in all maternity hospitals,” the report states.
Most of the operations were carried out at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda (348), the National Maternity Hospital (281) and the Coombe in Dublin (242).
The use of symphysiotomy began to decline from the late 1950s as a result of increased confidence in the safety of repeated Caesarean sections. However, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital continued with the procedure until 1984.
The report, seen by The Irish Times, is due to be published later this week. While patient groups have called for redress for women who have suffered lifelong health problems, the report does not make recommendations for the Government.
Instead, the Department of Health is planning to organise consultations with former patients, obstetricians and other interested groups. Their views will feed into a final report, which is likely to issue recommendations. How the State responds will be a matter for the Cabinet to decide.