The ugly politics of the womb

Twenty years ago, while the politics of the womb were dominating public debate in Ireland, Sheila Hodgers went into Our Lady …

Twenty years ago, while the politics of the womb were dominating public debate in Ireland, Sheila Hodgers went into Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, writes Fintan O'Toole

Sheila lived in Dundalk with her husband, Brendan. They had two daughters, aged eight and seven. They were considering trying for a third child when Sheila discovered a lump on her breast. After a mastectomy, however, she got better. With the help of cytotoxic drugs, her cancer was kept at bay.

Until, that is, she became pregnant. Her medication was stopped, for fear that it would harm the foetus in her womb. She developed severe lumbar pain, indicating a tumour on her back. But this could not be fully confirmed because the hospital would not take an X-ray.

Brendan Hodgers asked that a Caesarean section be performed on his wife, so that she could return to her cancer treatment immediately. The request was refused. She was admitted to Our Lady of Lourdes in agony. As Brendan Hodgers subsequently recalled: "She was literally screaming at this stage. I could hear her from the front door of the hospital, and she was in a ward on the fourth floor."


Sheila Hodgers was eventually moved to the maternity ward. On March 16th, 1983, she went into labour two months prematurely and was delivered of a baby girl the next day. The child died almost immediately after birth. Mrs Hodgers died two days later. She had tumours on her neck, spine and legs.

Padraig Yeates wrote an account of her story in The Irish Times in September 1983. It didn't matter. A few days later the country voted, by a two-to-one majority, to make Ireland an abortion-free zone. The Bishop of Raphoe, Dr Seamus Hegarty, had claimed in August 1983: "A democratically taken decision to outlaw abortion in Ireland would be a shining example to the rest of the world", and a majority of voters clearly agreed with him.

We now know that at the very time that Sheila Hodgers was being crucified on the cross of Ireland's exemplary protection of the unborn, the obstetrician Michael Neary, in the same department of the same hospital where she suffered and died, was deciding that the future children of many of the women entrusted to his care would remain forever unborn. He was, without consent or proper reason, taking out their perfectly healthy wombs.

We may never know why Michael Neary acted as he did or what dark obsessions made him such a danger to women. But such knowledge, in any event, would be largely useless. We can never predict or even fully understand such behaviour.

What we should be able to understand is why Neary was not stopped, why grievous bodily harm could be inflicted on so many women for so long. And in order to do that we have to acknowledge the extent to which a narrow obsession with abortion distorted medical ethics to the point where the real women disappeared.

Our Lady of Lourdes was, from 1939 until April 1997, a private Catholic hospital, run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Consultants employed there had to sign contracts agreeing to abide by Catholic ethics. These contracts were in the ultimate control of the local bishop, in this case the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland. The ethical standards were largely concerned with the control of women's bodies: no abortion, no sterilisation, no support for artificial contraception.

Placing consultants in this God-like position had huge consequences for patients. Our Lady of Lourdes was in the forefront of Catholic obstetric practice, including the routine use of symphysiotomy, the permanent widening of the pelvis.

This horrible operation, carried out for largely religious reasons (the fear that repeated Caesarean sections would lead women to use contraception), has left hundreds of women with back pain, incontinence and mobility problems. In Our Lady of Lourdes the operation was performed 348 times between 1950 and 1983. Informed consent was seldom an issue.

While mothers were suffering for the cause of making Ireland a shining example to the world, gross hypocrisy surrounded the veneer of ethics. Between 1971 and 1988 there were more than 50 complaints of sexual assault on boys and young men against a single consultant - not Michael Neary - at Our Lady of Lourdes.

And Michael Neary was removing the wombs of 5 per cent of his patients. The significance of this figure can be gauged by comparing it to a 10-year study of two hospitals in Canada. Neary's rate of Caesarean hysterectomy was 50 per thousand women. The Canadian hospitals had a combined rate of 0.4 per thousand.

In all of this we see the consequences of deciding that women do not have a right to control their own bodies. So long as we hold up that control as a shining example to the world, so long will we remain in a State where, if grotesque hypocrisy were a tradable commodity, our Gross National Product would still be booming.