Hundreds of women who survived a horrific medical procedure and now want compensation feel betrayed by government.
Warning: This story and video contain graphic descriptions that some people may find upsetting
Manchester, United Kingdom – Over the course of the past few months we’ve been covering one of the most extraordinary and lesser known human rights abuses in Europe.
It’s a medical procedure doctors I’ve spoken to in the UK have never heard of.
But it has blighted the lives of hundreds and hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women in the Republic of Ireland.
And only now are their stories coming out.
The procedure is called symphysiotomy: The symphys part refers to the pelvis, the “otomy” meaning separation.
Indeed, most of Ireland had never heard of it either until its history was dug up and a book was written about it.
Historically, symphysiotomy was only ever used as a last resort by surgeons if they had no way of getting a baby out of a pregnant woman.
Sawing open a woman’s pelvic bone to release a baby in the wrong position isn’t something any doctor would do on purpose.
Except in Ireland, and only in Ireland, that’s exactly what happened – throughout the 20th century.
Symphysiotomy was, it seems, preferred by the Catholic hierarchy to caesarean section because it would not limit the number of babies a woman could have.
The side effects, the catastrophic impact of breaking the pelvis, the purpose of which is to hold a body in place, were apparently ignored.
This week, I went to Manchester in England to interview a woman, now 63, who had this done to her in 1971.
You will see in the film here what she says the doctors did to her.
I have to confess, even though I’ve now spoken to a number of survivors of symphysiotomy, that this left me absolutely shocked – not least because her baby was not in trouble.
She had no need even for a caesarean section, the baby ended up coming out the right way round – even if its face was cut by the saw.
The central allegation Nora Clarke makes is that the doctors did it not because they had to – but because they wanted to.
Her baby wasn’t in breach position, or the wrong way around.
She says a nurse tried to turn it upside down by pressing on her stomach, and then decided she would need a symphysiotomy.
She thinks the students watching the operation were being trained to travel to Africa as missionary doctors where they would carry out these procedures on women without any access to proper medical facilities.
In short, she is of the view that they were experimenting on her.
Now that’s a very serious allegation, and one which you would assume might lead an advanced European state to want to investigate.
But nothing of the sort has happened.
The Irish state compensation scheme – which demands that victims give up any recourse to legal action against anyone remotely involved in this procedure – has given Nora 100,000 euros, and a letter from the assessor advising Nora to “spoil herself a little” with the proceeds.
The hospitals where this sort of thing went on are no longer run by the church, but by the state.
More broadly, in Ireland, the church is losing power: The people voted overwhelmingly to support gay marriage, and there is a growing demand for a further referendum on allowing women proper access to abortion – in a country where is it almost entirely illegal still.
Yet, those who are trying to fight for the victims – the survivors – of this practise believe that the state’s actions in trying to silence these women and pay them off with paltry compensation is an attempt to provide cover for the church, its methods, and its place in modern Ireland.
We have tried repeatedly to get an interview from the Irish government and the retired judge – who, incidentally, used to serve at the International Criminal Court – to hear why they have constructed the compensation scheme as they have, and why they do not feel the need for a proper civil or even criminal investigation into what went on in Ireland’s maternity hospitals up until the 1990s.
We have still had no success.