Women’s health: the time Mary was pregnant with her third rabbit

Women’s health: Still waiting for doctors and Government to catch up

Doctor checking woman’s pulse rate while she is lying down. Photograph: Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images

Doctor checking woman’s pulse rate while she is lying down. Photograph: Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images

 

It was 1726, and Mary Toft had a problem. The English peasant explained to her doctor that she was pregnant, but there was a complication. There was no father.

She was pregnant with her third rabbit.

The doctor examined her, and to his surprise, he not only believed her – he assisted with the birth. As more rabbits were born in the weeks that followed, Mary’s case attracted national attention.

Numerous respected doctors, including the King’s surgeon, all examined Mary. They all verified her story; they believed that she was, in fact, giving birth to rabbits.

Now, these doctors weren’t fools. They were products of the Enlightenment; they knew that women didn’t generally give birth to rabbits. In those days, however, gynaecology consisted mainly of feeling the mother’s stomach and sneaking furtive glances down below – nothing approaching an actual science. But now, with the nation demanding answers, they needed to conduct a thorough examination. So, they locked Mary in a room and examined the rabbits.

Sure enough, in the rabbits’ stomachs they found hay and lettuce – hard to come by in a uterus. Once they started threatening her with grotesque and experimental surgery, poor Mary confessed her fraud.

But how did she fool the experts for so long?

Prudes

The doctors, to put it mildly, were prudes. They were so bashful, they didn’t even get close enough to notice all the dead rabbits stuffed in Mary’s pockets. And this was common practice – for the doctors, not the rabbits.

A doctor examines a pregnant woman in 19th century France. French illustration 1890. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
A doctor examines a pregnant woman in 19th century France. French illustration 1890. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Doctors routinely went faint at the mere mention of female flesh. For a long time, if a female patient wanted to describe anything below her waistline, she could refer only to her “ankle”; anything above was simply her “stomach”. It’s impossible to describe accurately any symptom when you can’t even describe your thigh properly.

Well into the 19th century, doctors were too modest to examine or study female anatomy properly. In rare cases, this resulted in innovation. The stethoscope, for example, was invented so that doctors could listen to a female patient’s heartbeat without touching her breasts.

But generally, and as a whole, this prudish ignorance had terrible consequences.

In the 1860s, Isaac Baker Brown was one of the first gynaecological surgeons. Baker Brown, however, was a lunatic. He removed women’s clitorises to stop them from masturbating, and removed their ovaries because, well, he just figured they were bad. His sister, his fourth patient, was the first one to survive the procedure. His fellow doctors were shocked, and finally realised how profoundly dangerous their ignorance had become.

In the wake of Baker Brown, women’s healthcare was finally reformed. (Progress was slow – Lysol, the American Dettol, was advertised as a “feminine hygiene” product nearly 60 years later.) Doctors stopped blushing long enough to treat all of their patients’ anatomy equally. Lives were saved. Real progress was made.

Lasting damage

But the lasting damage was already done. Women’s healthcare was irreparably delayed by centuries. With that delay came a lack of knowledge. And even as doctors began to make progress, society didn’t.

“Polite” society silenced important conversations about women’s health. Even childbirth was too risque to discuss openly. I Love Lucy, as late as the 1950s, was not allowed by censors to say the word “pregnant”, despite both the character and the real-life actress being “in the family way”. Women couldn’t talk openly about their problems, share advice or experience or comfort; they had to wait for doctors and medicine to catch up and find answers to the questions they couldn’t ask each other.

Generations of women never learned how to be their own advocates in the examination room. How could they? Even among themselves, society kept them hesitant.

The most lasting consequence of all this prudishness is that it became easier, when convenient, to keep women in the dark about their bodies.

This is where things get worse.

Much, much worse.

There’s really no easy way to say this – the chainsaw was first invented to assist in a gynaecological procedure. To widen the birth canal during childbirth.

Symphysiotomy

The procedure was called symphysiotomy, and although the chainsaws were abandoned, they give you an idea of the nature of the procedure. It left women with profound, lifelong disabilities. But it also allowed them to have more babies, so the Catholic Church in Ireland saw an opportunity.

This instrument is a type of clamp designed by the surgeon Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1873) for use with a cautery iron. The cautery clamp was probably used during ovariotomy to control the bleeding from blood vessels. Photograph: SSPL/ Getty Images
This instrument is a type of clamp designed by the surgeon Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1873) for use with a cautery iron. The cautery clamp was probably used during ovariotomy to control the bleeding from blood vessels. Photograph: SSPL/ Getty Images

Between 1944 and 1987, it’s estimated that 1,500 Irish women had the procedure without their knowledge or consent, mainly in private Catholic hospitals. The practice was described in a Dáil debate as one of the worst medical scandals in Ireland, if not the world.

Some have defended the practice, saying that it was the only option available. What these defenders never explain is, if it was a necessary procedure, why did the hospital feel the need to perform them without permission? Why were women who were left crippled, lied to about why? This is the most damaging part – keeping these women in the dark. You can kick the church out of the hospital; you can stop a barbaric procedure. But lying to women about their bodies continues today, and women continue to suffer as a result.

The recent CervicalCheck scandal is not about why the lab incorrectly read smear tests. Medicine isn’t perfect; incorrect results happen. The scandal was the decision to not inform the affected women when the mistakes were discovered. The women were left to develop symptoms in the dark.

Leo Varadkar – after an apologetic offer of free smear tests turned into a disaster – apologised, saying that the Government acted with their hearts, not their heads. Don Quixote did that too, with similar results.

Instead of making apologies, what the Government should be doing is asking how did we let this happen again.

The answer is that it’s not just an Irish problem; it’s not just one scandal. It’s the lasting consequences of prude doctors, more willing to examine a rabbit than a woman; of the subsequent delays to women’s medicine; and the effect this had on the ability to keep women in the dark about their healthcare.

Women don’t need our hearts, or apologies. They need society to stop averting its eyes. They need their health. They need their lives.

Instead of apologising for the darkness, maybe the HSE can finally turn on the light.

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