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.”