New film tackles symphysiotomy


Following a difficult labour, Joan O’Connor gave birth to her first child, a girl, in April 1965. But unbeknownst to her at the time, she was one of a relatively small number of women subjected to a high-risk procedure to open the pelvis during childbirth.

In the weeks afterwards she started to wonder why she couldn’t walk properly, why it was so painful to wheel her daughter’s pram. It was only after she mentioned these complaints to a doctor that she discovered her pelvis had been broken, prior to that she had been told “absolutely nothing”.

Earlier today Ms O’Connor was part of a large audience that attended the screening of Mothers against the Odds, a new documentary that focuses on the plight of Irish women forced to endure symphysiotomies during childbirth in the mid to late twentieth century.

The film compares the treatment of these women with that of women in Kenyan hospitals today and argues that Kenyan society forces women to submit to the prevailing demands of traditional culture, religion and the perceived superiority of their husbands.

“We’ve always felt that you must link the history of the two sides of the world,” filmmaker Anne Daly said.

Director Ronan Tynan added “[Kenyan women] clearly don’t have any rights, they’re not respected and hence terrible things were done to them,” he said the same applied to Irish women a few decades ago.

Things have improved dramatically since then, he added, linking positive developments in women’s health with greater social equality. “Women’s rights improved in Ireland, women’s health got better. It’s as crude and as simplistic as that.”

After watching the film Joan O'Connor said it highlighted the suffering women like her went through. “I was treated terrible,” she recalled, “and I was never given a reason why it was done.”

Survivors of Symphysiotomy chairwoman Marie O’Connor said over a hundred women who underwent the procedure attended the documentary. Afterwards a number of them addressed the auditorium, speaking openly about the lasting physical and emotional impact the surgery has had on their lives.

Ms O’Connor argued the procedures were conducted as a training experiment. “Women from all backgrounds were targeted for the surgery,” but young mothers who would have known “little or nothing about the process of childbirth” were chosen in particular. “The vast vast majority were discharged without any idea that their pelvis had been broken.”

Hospitals carried out an estimated 1,500 symphysiotomies, mostly during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Survivors of Symphysiotomy believes about 200 women survive today, many of them disabled.

Ms O’Connor called for a change to the law to allow survivors ready access to the courts. “The government must now lift the statute bar,” she said in a statement. “While many cases are being taken against private hospitals, all of these operations were done on the State's watch.”