Redress plan to be considered for survivors of controversial childbirth operation

Judge Yvonne Murphy to advise on ‘just solution’ for symphysiotomy sufferers

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

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

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

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

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

Under terms of reference, she has been tasked with drawing 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 bring closure for women who have endured years of suffering.

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

However, he announced a reversal of the Government’s plans to pass legislation which would have allowed women affected by the procedure to seek legal redress.


Statute of limitations
Earlier this year Dr Reilly said the Government would not oppose a cross-party Private Members Bill to lift the statute of limitations for women seeking justice through the courts.

At a press conference yesterday, 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 Government's announcement was mixed yesterday. One support group, Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) Ltd, welcomed the Government decision which it said was a relief for many women who have been battling for justice for decades.

Tom Moran, chairman of the group, said: "We welcome this decision to appoint the judge and we hope it leads to women finally being given a chance of some kind of closure."

But another support group with a similar name, Survivors of Symphysiotomy, described it as an attempt to blindfold survivors by setting up an opaque and closed-ended process.

Marie O’Connor, the group’s spokeswoman, said: “Truth is a big ticket item for survivors of symphysiotomy. The official view is that there has been no medical negligence, or very little. Resolution cannot come from a lie.”


Peak use
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).


Dark ages
An official report found that while some obstetricians heralded the operation as a solution to difficulties in labour, others described it as "midwifery of the dark ages" due to its health effects.

The use of symphysiotomy began to decline from the late 1950s as a result of increased confidence in the safety of repeated Caesarean sections.

Last year, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offered its unreserved sympathy to women who have suffered as a result of controversial symphysiotomy operations.However, it has maintained the operation appeared at the time to offer a method of safe birth in some cases of obstructed labour in mothers with contracted pelvis

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent

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