Reasons for women not to be cheerful


Almost 30 years ago, in September 1983, the journalist Padraig Yeates told the story of Sheila Hodgers in this newspaper.

She was a young, married Dundalk mother-of-two who had died in agony at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda the previous March, two days after giving birth to a premature baby girl. She had become pregnant while receiving treatment for a recurrent cancer. The hospital had refused to allow her to stay on the treatment because of the pregnancy. Her husband, Brendan, had asked variously for an abortion, early delivery of the baby or a Caesarean section. All were refused.

The baby, at seven months’ gestation, died a few hours after birth. “By then Sheila had tumours everywhere; on her neck, her legs, her spine,” Hodgers told Yeates. She died two days after her daughter.

Almost three decades later, another year closes in which the question of who has jurisdiction over women’s bodies still warrants intimate public discussion.

In March, some 42 years after the cartilage binding her pubic bones together had been sawn apart in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, 60-year-old Olivia Kearney was awarded €450,000 in the High Court. Known as symphysiotomy, the procedure was rooted in Catholic teaching. It was carried out on up to 1,500 women in Irish hospitals between 1944 and 1966, even as late as 1984. It was performed where a mother’s pelvis was considered too small for her baby to pass through, to avoid repeated Caesarean sections, which may in turn have “tempted [her] to use artificial contraception” or worse, seek sterilisation, in the words of Mr Justice Sean Ryan, the judge in Kearney’s case in March.

The procedure left its victims incontinent, unable to walk properly, in constant pain and in some cases with lifelong mental illness and broken relationships. A draft report on symphysiotomy has been submitted to the Department of Health by Prof Oonagh Walsh. A group representing survivors has rejected the report, as it finds only three symphysiotomies, performed post-Caesarean section, were wrong.

A second report is awaited amid calls that the State waive the time limit on litigation so that survivors can sue for compensation.

It is worth noting that Kearney won her case because the doctor in her case sawed apart her pelvis when in fact it had not been too small. It was not because the vandalism of her pelvis was a barbaric infringement of her bodily integrity.

Going public on abortion

In April four women, each of whom had had a pregnancy in which the baby had been diagnosed with “an abnormality incompatible with life”, went public about having travelled to England to have abortions. They had been planned and wanted pregnancies and to have travelled for such a heartbreaking procedure was, said one of these women, Ruth Bowie, “cruel”.

“The system should wrap its arms around you,” she told The Irish Times in April. “Instead it turns its back on you.”

The decision is not only difficult, but is sometimes made on grounds of class. The London-based Abortion Support Network offers finance and accommodation to women travelling for an abortion and in July its founder, Mara Clark, pointed out in this newspaper: “There is a belief that if you make abortion against the law you stop abortion, but you don’t. All you do is make it inconvenient for women and couples that have financial resources and you make it desperate for women and couples who don’t.” The cost, excluding accommodation and travel, is between €400 and €1,600.

The furore that followed US Congressman Todd Akin’s reference, in August, to “legitimate” rape, preceded the decision by Youth Defence to remove the claim from its website that the chances of becoming pregnant as a result of rape – as long as, we might infer, it was legitimate rape – were remote. If the woman had meant “Yes” when she said “No”, can we presume pregnancy is likely and is her own fault?

In October there were protests against abortion rights, with demonstrations in Belfast outside the Marie Stopes International clinic, the first private clinic on the island to provide abortion services.

Women are still being told what to do and what not to do while pregnant: in May, it was that watching your weight while pregnant “can be beneficial”; in July, it was that working late in pregnancy “harms baby”; and last month it was that drinking one glass of wine a week could damage the baby’s IQ. At the other extreme, in June, we read how Chinese women can be forced to abort their babies. A woman named Feng Jianmei, in the northern Shaanxi province, was seven months pregnant when she was forced to have an abortion. She and her husband already had a six-year-old daughter and so had contravened the country’s one-child policy.

Savita Halappanavar

On November 14th, the world first saw the radiant face of Savita Halappanavar. The picture of the 31-year-old woman, on the front page of The Irish Times, catapulted Irish women’s wombs right back to the top of the political and social agenda with all the inevitable ugliness and opportunism of three decades earlier. She had been 17 weeks pregnant when she presented at Galway University Hospital on October 21st. Her husband Praveen Halappanavar told how, having been diagnosed as miscarrying, she asked a day later for a termination. He says this was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat present and this was “a Catholic country”. Like Sheila Hodgers, she delivered a baby girl who died. And, days later, like Sheila Hodgers, she died too.

As Emily O’Reilly, now the Ombudsman, wrote about the Hodgers case in her seminal 1992 text Masterminds of the Right: “The rights of both could not have been more finely balanced. Mother and baby had died.”