Academics and lawyers back call to retain records of symphysiotomy survivors

Letter urges State’s independent redress scheme to return records to women by post

The State scheme to compensate women left physically and psychologically damaged by symphysiotomy procedures during childbirth has been urged by a group of academics, historians, lawyers and human rights professionals not to destroy their medical records.

The redress scheme, headed by former High Court judge Maureen Harding Clark, recently said on its website it would destroy all the applicants' records unless it was informed by February 29th that they wished to have them returned. On February 26th, however, following submissions by the group Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS), the scheme said applicants would be given until March 20th to decide what they wish to happen to their records. Plan to destroy In a letter published in today's Irish Times, 17 people, including respected human rights lawyers, historians and data protection experts, urge the former judge to reconsider the plan to destroy them.

They say the UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concern that symphysiotomy was performed in Ireland without patient consent from 1944-1987, and cited Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and involuntary medical experimentation.

The committee ruled that Ireland should, inter alia, “initiate a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into cases of symphysiotomy” and “prosecute and punish the perpetrators, including medical personnel”. Only proof The group says obstetric records that could potentially be destroyed may be some claimants’ only proof that they were subjected to the surgery.


The letter says that to shred the data after March 20th, as proposed, "is therefore to destroy material that will be needed in any future inquiry (or research) into the practice of symphysiotomy". It notes the survivors are continuing to press for an inquiry with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. A complaint to the UN Committee Against Torture is due for examination next year.

The academics also say that women who do not seek the return of their obstetric records are not being informed that they may not be retrievable from their hospitals of origin.

They urge Ms Harding Clark to reconsider her decision and return all records.

Survivors of Symphysiotomy has also asked the Data Protection Commissioner to intervene and says its concerns have not been alleviated by an agreement apparently reached between the commissioner and the independent assessor with regard to the disposal of the records.

SOS says it fundamental concern “is the unnecessary and destructive shredding of records, which remains the scheme’s stated intention”.

It has written to the commissioner saying the obstetric and other medical records are records of human rights abuses, that they will be needed in any future inquiry into the practice of symphysiotomy and to destroy them is “fundamentally wrong”.

The commissioner’s office said on February 26th it had examined the issue and sought additional information from the assessor, Ms Harding Clark.

“Judge Clark has since clarified to this office that she has undertaken a series of actions designed to ensure that all relevant data subjects will receive adequate and direct written notice of their options in relation to their personal data i.e. to seek its return or have the assessor delete or shred it.

“It is to be noted that the Data Protection Acts require that personal data is retained for no longer than is necessary. In certain cases this may involve the shredding or deleting of personal data.”

Data experts have said, however, that a requirement not to retain records does not necessarily mean they should be destroyed.