Operation victims seek more time to file cases

Mon, Mar 26, 2012, 01:00

THE GOVERNMENT is facing fresh calls to amend the statute of limitations to allow women who suffered as a result of a controversial childbirth operation to take legal action against health authorities.

This follows the first award in the High Court last week for a woman who had a symphysiotomy operation carried out on her more than 40 years ago.

Olivia Kearney (60) received €450,000 in damages as a result of what High Court judge Mr Justice Seán Ryan described as “grave medical malpractice”, when a “wholly unnecessary” symphysiotomy procedure was carried out on her when having her first baby at the age of 18 at a Drogheda hospital.

A symphysiotomy involves the sawing of the symphysis joint to widen the pelvis during childbirth and accommodate a baby’s head.

The procedures were carried out on 1,500 women in Ireland from 1944 to 1992 and have left many women with complications including walking difficulties, incontinence and chronic pain. It is estimated that around 150 of these women are still alive.

Many were not asked for their consent or told what was going to happen to them before being held down for the procedure.

While Ms Kearney’s success in the High Court is considered a landmark case by campaigners, many woman say they are outside the three-year time limit to take legal action.

On this basis, the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group has called on the Government to set aside the statute of limitations for one year.

“A number of our members risk being statute-barred. Justice demands that the statute be varied to allow them to take their chances in court, as was done for other victims of institutional abuse,” the group’s spokeswoman, Marie O’Connor, said.

“Even after they were exposed in the media, some women could not bring themselves to believe that they had been subjected to wrongful surgery.

“Like other victims of abuse, they found it extremely difficult to accept that their trust had been abused, especially when they were having a baby. The doctors they consulted were generally unsupportive.”

Minister for Health James Reilly has said he has asked the Attorney General to consider a draft report into the practice of symphysiotomy and hopes to circulate this to campaign groups shortly.

He has said he is very conscious of the distress the procedure caused to women and the Government was committed to ensuring the greatest possible supports and services were made available to women who continued to suffer the effects of this procedure.

A number of senior obstetricians have defended the practice and said it was used as a safer alternative to the Caesarean section, which was seen as a riskier operation.

However, campaigners argue that symphysiotomies were practised on a large scale in Ireland for religious reasons, on the basis that women who had Caesarean sections would be tempted to use contraception to avoid having further births.

The symphysiotomy widened the pelvis, reducing the need for future Caesarean sections.

In Ms Kearney’s High Court case, Mr Justice Seán Ryan commented that the Catholic ethos and mode of thinking that prevailed about the symphysiotomy procedure that Mrs Kearney underwent in 1969 was “mercifully a matter of history”.

Yesterday, Ms O’Connor noted Ms Kearney only discovered the fact that she had had a symphysiotomy by accident, through the media, some 30 years after her surgery.

“That a patient could have major surgery without her knowledge or consent, and that she could be discharged from hospital without knowing her pelvis had been severed, beggars belief. But in the vast majority of cases, this is exactly what happened.”