Compensation plan considered for symphysiotomy survivors

Controversial operation resulted in chronic pain and incontinence for many

A file image of a protest by  the group Survivors of Symphysiotomy  outside Leinster House in Dublin, in June. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

A file image of a protest by the group Survivors of Symphysiotomy outside Leinster House in Dublin, in June. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


The Government has appointed a judge to examine the feasibility of a compensation scheme for women who underwent symphysiotomies, a controversial childbirth procedure.

Of the estimated 1,500 women who underwent the procedure between the 1940s and 1980s, it is estimated that up to 300 survivors remain.

Symphysiotomies involved sawing a pregnant woman’s pubic bone in half to widen the birth canal.

For many women the procedure left permanent injuries such as incontinence, difficulties walking and chronic pain.

Minister for Health Dr James Reilly today announced that Judge Yvonne Murphy has been appointed to examine how such a scheme could be structured.

She has been asked to draw up a series of recommendations by next February to “assist in finding closure” for women affected by the operation.

The Government has agreed to contribute to an ex gratia scheme, if she recommends one.

Judge Murphy - who headed up the commission into the Dublin Archdiocese’s handling of child abuse allegations - is also due to meet with insurers, indemnifiers and other third parties to explore whether they will contribute towards such a fund.

Dr Reilly said he hoped the appointment would hopefully bring closure for these women for the years of suffering they have endured.

“I have listened closely to the testimony provided by the woman and I cannot help but be moved by their stories,” he said.

“I am determined that their situation will now be addressed, having been ignored for so long by previous governments.”

However he announced a U-turn on the Government’s plans to pass legislation which would allow women affected by the procedure to seek legal redress.

Dr Reilly had previously said the Government would not oppose a cross-party Private Members’ Bill which would lift the statute of limitations for up to 200 affected women.

At the press conference today, he said legal advice given to the Government indicated that such a move could result in legal challenges by insurance firms on the basis that the State had “moved the goalposts” over cover.

Reaction to the announcement has been mixed today. One of the support groups, Survivors of Symphysiotomy Ltd, welcomed the Government decision which it said was relief for many women who have been battling for justice for decades.

Tom Moran, chairman of SOS Ltd, said: “We welcome this decision to appoint the judge to we hope it lead to women finally being given a chance of some kind of closure.”

But Sinn Féin’s health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the announcement did not offer truth or justice, and criticised plans to keep the statute of limitations in place.

“The type of scheme outlined in the terms of reference offers the women no prospect of adequate compensation for what was so barbarically done to them nor the choice to pursue their rights in the courts.”

A report commissioned by the Government last year found that use of symphysiotomies was at its peak in Ireland when it had declined in the rest of Europe.

The use of the procedure was concentrated in a handful of hospitals, according to the report. These include Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda (348), the National Maternity Hospital (281) and the Coombe in Dublin (242).

The use of symphysiotomy began to decline from the late 1950s as a result of increased confidence in the safety of repeated Caesarean sections. However, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital continued with the procedure until 1984.

It found that while some obstetricians heralded the operation as a solution to difficulties in labour, others described it as “midwifery of the dark ages” and a “brutal” form of surgery due to its long-term health effects.