Symphysiotomy survivors’ ‘dreadful situation’ highlighted

Minister for Justice leading Government delegation to UN committee on human rights

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has referred to the "dreadful situation of the survivors of symphysiotomy" in her statement to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva today.

The Minister is leading the Irish Government delegation at the UN committee, which is conducting its fifth periodic review of Ireland's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Some 16 NGOs from Ireland made brief oral statements to the committee this morning on such issues as symphysiotomy, reproductive rights, Traveller ethnicity, prison conditions, the rights of people with intellectual disabilities and the lack of non-denominational education.

Ms Fitzgerald made a 20-minute statement on a wide range of issues this afternoon and will face questions from the 18-member committee today and tomorrow morning.


She said reform of police accountability and oversight mechanisms was her central priority.

"We are progressing a package of measures aimed at restoring confidence in the performance, administration and oversight of policing in Ireland," she said. "The Government has decided that a Garda Síochána Authority will be created."

On abortion, she said the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was a “significant recent development” and its purpose was to “confer procedural rights on a woman who believes she has a life-threatening condition, so that she can have certainty as to whether she require this treatment or not”.

“The Act upholds the right to life of the unborn where practicable and the right to life of a pregnant woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy, as required by Article 40.3.3. The Act also creates procedures which apply to the lawful termination of pregnancy.

“The objectives of these procedures are firstly to ensure that where lawful termination is under consideration the right to life of the unborn is respected where practicable, and secondly to ensure that a woman can ascertain by means of a clear process whether she is entitled to medical treatment to which the Act applies.”

The Minister spent a considerable amount of her speaking time setting out the tortured nature of the abortion debate in Ireland, setting out the five referendums on the issue since 1983, “the possible effect of international instruments signed by the State on this question” and the impact the issue had on the electorate’s vote in European referendums.

“The question of abortion was a factor impacting on the electorate’s decision to vote against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty,” she said. “Accordingly, the constitutional and legislative framework in Ireland reflects the nuanced and proportionate approach to the considered views of the Irish electorate on the profound moral question of the extent to which the right to life of the unborn should be protected and balanced against the rights of the mother.”

On the “dreadful situation” of the survivors of symphysiotomy, she said: “The Government has decided to establish an ex-gratia scheme for the survivors. The main advantage of this is that it offers a more flexible solution in terms of the mix of pecuniary and non-pecuniary elements of any award to applicants.

"This non-adversarial approach will also ensure that the women concerned will not have to pursue cases in the High Court or risk the burden of an adverse costs order.

“This seems particularly desirable given that a large percentage of the women are now aged between 75 and 91 years of age. I should also say that the women are receiving and will continue to receive a range of health and social care supports from the State.”

She said the new Gender Recognition Bill, which will allow transgender people to have the gender on their birth certificate changed and is due to be published later this year would be “very significant reform for a particularly vulnerable group”, adding a recent amendment to it would mean a young person aged 16 or 17 could, with parental consent, apply to have their gender reassigned on official documents.

The Minister said Ireland had “a great respect for and attaches great significance to the UN human rights treaty monitoring process. Support for the role of the treaty monitoring bodies is a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy in respect of the promotion of human rights globally.”

She also spoke about the Government apology to women who were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, measures to reduce the number of people committed to prison for non-payment of fines, extension of domestic violence barring orders to civil partners, reforms of the asylum process, and the establishment of a group to oversee the implementation of recommendations from the Ombudsman for Children’s office arising from the removal of two Roma children from their families.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times