Ireland’s shocking record on women’s rights

Horror operations based on church doctrine, abuse, neglect. Ireland escapes criticism and largely ignores the victims.

In recent months there has been a welter of reports about the horror of FGM, or female genital mutilation. The health service in the UK, for instance, is having to deal with thousands of cases, but because FGM is ‘cultural’ politicians don’t appear to be able to do much to wipe it out.

While FGM has become a real cause of concern in the UK – the former foreign secretary William Hague was particularly personally interested in it – nobody ever said a thing about a practice carried out for many, many years in Ireland which is only now being regarded as a similar human rights violation.

It’s called symphysiotomy, or the separation of the pelvis. Put simply, it involves sawing through a woman’s pelvic bone and cartilage during a difficult childbirth to open up the pelvis and enable birth.

It was banned in most places before the 20th century, but in Ireland hundreds and hundreds of women had it done to them, apparently because doctors preferred it to caesarian section. Why? Because c-section limits the number of children a woman can have, and once a woman has been effectively spatchcocked through symphysiotomy the doctors hoped she could have more and more. After all, this is in line with Catholic thinking on family size.

You can see in the attached video what the effects of all this were: women felt butchered, their physical lives and emotional wellbeing wrecked completely by a medical hierarchy which seemed, to campaigners, to insert religious dogma into medical practice. As a violation of a person’s rights, often without their consent, it’s easy to see the comparison with FGM.

It’s widely held that the chainsaws used in this practise were put away for good in the 1980s, but fears remain that since the hospital system in Ireland is still overseen by senior figures in the church, symphysiotomy might not have gone away.

There was a recorded case in 2005 and it’s believed one took place last year, but the medical profession has proved impossible for campaigners to infiltrate. The Irish state offered an ex-gratia payment of $64,000 per survivor without accepting blame, and that’s been ruled out as unacceptable by the survivors.

They want a truth commission, a reckoning.

It’s only a couple of years since Savita Halappanavar bled to death in an Irish hospital while miscarrying because doctors refused her an abortion, again in line with Catholic-inspired medical law.

So does the state really know what’s going on in its hospitals?

It’s hardly surprising women’s rights campaigners want the separation of church and state in Ireland. Understanding of symphysiotomy has only just begun to emerge, even in Ireland and not at all anywhere else.

But as the UN’s Nigel Rodley recently observed in his remarks on Ireland’s human rights record, it sits very much in the same bracket as other recent scandals which all saw a passive state answer not to the people but to the Catholic church:

‘Then there remain the many social issues that have been raised by colleagues. The Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes, the child abuse, the symphysiotomy. It is quite a collection, and it is a collection that has carried on beyond any period that it is hard to imagine any state party tolerating. And I can’t prevent myself from observing that all of them are not disconnected from the institutional belief system that has predominated in the state party, and which occasionally has sought to dominate the state party’.

– Nigel Rodley, July 2014

It is amazing how little international attention human rights in Ireland receives. Campaigners around these issues feel very strongly that if the abuses were taking place in parts of Africa or the Middle East they would, fairly, be causes the western media might wish to trumpet.

Perhaps Ireland is too close to home. Perhaps people think it’s all in the past.

But it isn’t, there are thousands of survivors of all these things who have received no acknowledgement from authority – and civil liberties experts argue it’s by no means clear even now that a pregnant woman is going to receive medical attention free from theocratic influence.

Perhaps if Angelina Jolie took an interest it might get more attention.