‘I’ll never forget the pain. It was excruciating’

Matilda Behan is still coping with the effects of an operation carried out 55 years ago

Matilda Behan (82) had a symphysiotomy operation performed on her without her consent in Holles Street in 1959: “ It’s been very limiting. It’s affected all my family.”

Matilda Behan (82) had a symphysiotomy operation performed on her without her consent in Holles Street in 1959: “ It’s been very limiting. It’s affected all my family.”

Wed, Nov 27, 2013, 10:53

For the past 55 years, Matilda Behan has faced daily reminders of the operation that has haunted her for life. She finds it too painful to walk any distance. She is incontinent. There is also chronic pain which never really goes away.

“I take a lot of painkillers and anti-inflammatories every day,” says Behan (82) from Ringsend in Dublin. “ It’s been very limiting. It’s affected all my family.”

The legacy of health problems began, she says, after she was admitted to hospital in April 1958. Two of her children had died during childbirth and she had been told she would need a Caesarean section for any future births.

“I just remember being brought into a theatre and
the place was packed with people. I wasn’t told what was happening,” she says.

She recalls being given a local anaesthetic. Then, she says, two nurses put her hands behind her head and two doctors pulled her legs apart.

“I’ll never forget the pain I went through. I was screaming and being restrained. I couldn’t see much except for them sawing. It was excruciating pain . . . I was just 27 and I was butchered.”

Symphysiotomies involved sawing a pregnant woman’s pubic bone in half to widen the birth canal.

A report commissioned by the Government last year found that use of symphysiotomies was at its peak in Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s - when it was rarely used in the rest of Europe. In all, it is estimated that about 1,500 operations were carried out .

As for Behan, it was only decades later she realised that she had had a symphysiotomy.

She read a newspaper report on research by Jacqueline Morrissey, who
was completing a PhD on the influence of Catholic ethics on medicine. It described how the procedure was revived in Ireland in the 1950s and was carried out instead of providing contraception to women who faced the prospect of obstructed births. The issue
of whether the operations were necessary is still hotly debated. The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently insisted that the operation at the time appeared to offer a method of safe birth in some cases of obstructed labour.

“I was never told anything, never asked for my consent,” Behan says. Even now, some of the details are still emerging.

Just last year she was seen by a specialist who was shocked when he saw the damage caused by the operation. “The consultant said my pubic bone was absolutely destroyed,” she says. “He couldn’t believe it. It was much worse than I ever realised.”

The State has responded to some of her needs in recent years with medical cards for sufferers. It has taken another 12 years for a government to finally take the first step towards setting up some form of redress scheme.

“Compensation would be something,” she says. “I still need an awful lot done for me. I need a carer. An admission of what was done wrong would give me some closure. And it would help me live properly for the rest of my life.”