Symphysiotomy survivors attend documentary screening


Following a difficult labour, Joan O’Connor gave birth to her first child, a girl, in April 1965. Unbeknown to her at the time, she was one of a relatively small number of women subjected to a high-risk procedure to open the pelvis during childbirth.

In the weeks afterwards she started to wonder why she couldn’t walk properly, why it was so painful to wheel her daughter’s pram. It was only after she mentioned these complaints to a doctor that she discovered her pelvis had been broken. Prior to that she had been told “absolutely nothing”.

Yesterday Ms O’Connor was part of a large audience at the screening of Mothers against the Odds, a new documentary that focuses on the plight of Irish women forced to endure symphysiotomies during the mid to late 20th century.

The film compares the treatment of these women with that of women in Kenyan hospitals today and argues that Kenyan society forces women to submit to the prevailing demands of traditional culture, religion and the perceived superiority of their husbands. “We’ve always felt that you must link the history of the two sides of the world,” film-maker Anne Daly said.


Director Ronan Tynan added, “ clearly don’t have any rights, they’re not respected and hence terrible things were done to them.” He said the same applied to Irishwomen a few decades ago.

Things have improved dramatically since then, he added, linking positive developments in women’s health with greater social equality. “Women’s rights improved in Ireland, women’s health got better. It’s as crude and as simplistic as that.”

Ms O’Connor said the film highlighted the suffering women like her went through. “I was treated terrible, and I was never given a reason why it was done.”

Survivors of Symphysiotomy chairwoman Marie O’Connor said more than 100 women who underwent the procedure attended the screening. Afterwards a number of them addressed the auditorium, speaking openly about the lasting physical and emotional impact of the surgery, which included chronic pain and incontinence.

Ms O’Connor argued the procedures, of which an estimated 1,500 took place, were conducted as a training experiment.

She called for a change to the law to allow survivors ready access to the courts.

“The Government must now lift the statute bar,” she said in a statement.

“While many cases are being taken against private hospitals, all of these operations were done on the State’s watch.”