Ireland accused of whitewashing childbirth scandal

Hundreds of women who survived a horrific medical procedure and now want compensation feel betrayed by government.

Dublin, Ireland – One of the ways a government can claim properly to be representing its people is by holding up a magnifying glass to bad things that happened in the past.

In the UK, for example, all sorts of inquiries have been held recently into issues ranging from systematic abuse of children in care to the deaths of football fans in a crush at a ground.

These things provide for a sense of justice for the victims, if they are held properly and dispassionately, and they suggest that the past isn’t forgotten.

But in Ireland at the moment, a very different sort of thing is happening. It concerns the treatment of hundreds of women, now middle aged or old, who as young mothers to be were maimed by their own doctors in maternity hospitals.

The women are all survivors of a dreadful practice called symphysiotomy, in which expectant mothers were sawed open as a medical alternative to Caesarian section in hospitals where, it is assumed, Catholic thinking outweighed medical logic.

Without going into all the background, you can catch up on it here.

But the compensation scheme has been roundly condemned by civil rights campaigners as a way of protecting the abusers of the women from legal action, because any woman who signs up to the scheme is forced to indemnify the most amazingly long list of people and institutions from any legal redress.

Here’s the official list of indemnified parties, which covers the state, senior people in government, and the entire medical profession conceivably linked to symphysiotomy, as well as sections of the Catholic church:

The Attorney General.
The Minister for Health.
The Minister of any Government Department in the State.
Any other organ of the State.
The State Claims Agency.
The Health Service Executive.
All former Health Boards in the State.
All local authorities in the State.
All hospitals, nursing homes, former hospitals or former nursing homes in the State whether public, private or otherwise and/or their insurers.
All doctors, consultants, obstetricians, surgeons, medical staff, midwives, nursing staff, administrative staff, Boards of Management, associated with all hospitals or nursing homes, former hospitals or former nursing homes in the State whether public, private or otherwise and/or their insurers.
The Medical Defence Union and all or any of its members or former members.
The Medical Protection Society and all or any of its members or former members.
The Medical Missionaries of Mary and/or any Religious Order involved in the running of any hospital and/or their insurers. 
All or any of the above or any combination of them their servants or agents.

All of which looks to critics of the scheme a way of the state enticing women into the compensation scheme in order to stop them from taking legal action in the civil courts against hospitals which may have had in the past, or still have now, members of the Catholic Church among their hierarchies.

Playing hardball

It’s also claimed, as you can see in the attached film, that the retired judge who is deciding on the compensation claims is playing hardball with the victims through their solicitors.

It is even alleged she thinks some of them have, consciously or otherwise, invented claims.

That has prompted a furious reaction from the survivors’ group, which sees it as a collective slur against the women.

The other question is, how much money should the survivors get?

They are being offered between €50 and €150,000 [most so far have got the minimum], and have to prove “significant disability” even though in many cases they can’t get hold of their own medical records since they don’t exist any more.

And even if they get 150,000, does that compensate for an adult life in which many say they could not have sex, were made incontinent and had emotional as well as physical trauma to deal with?

By way of comparison, in the UK a woman who was victim of a botched procedure which led to her being unable to have se, has just been awarded £2.4m against the National Health Service. The Irish scheme looks pretty tiny by comparison.

But the biggest issue is this: should Ireland be dealing with this through a secretive looking compensation scheme, or should it be attending to the way in which the church held power in institutions like hospitals in the 20th century?

There are any number of recent stories which have prompted women’s rights campaigners to call for the separation of church and state, yet a compensation scheme which looks like it is protecting the abusers implies the opposite intent.

The alternative, if you follow the model of other countries, would be an inquiry in which women were able to speak openly about what happened to them, and hospitals and religious institutions were called on to explain their actions in public.

Maimed by obstetricians

Bearing in mind that most Irish people under the age of 40 seem not to know the word symphysiotomy, or that any of this even happened in their country, it might be seen as an important thing.

But there appears no chance of anything like that happening.

The bottom line is that women who were maimed by obstetricians in Irish hospitals are now having to sign a piece of paper protecting those doctors and hospitals from any legal action, and in return they get a few thousand euros.

If that’s galling for them, the other thing against them is time: since the scheme began, no fewer than six have died. Presumably without any apology.

We asked both the Irish Department of Health and Maureen Harding Clark to speak to us. We received the following correspondence from the Department of Health to our queries.

In the course of our work looking at the administration of the Symphysiotomy Payment Scheme questions have been raised about the treatment of some of those who applied to take part. Specifically we have heard repeatedly that Judge Clark believes many women may be making false claims. This is a very serious allegation.

The Scheme is non adversarial. Each application is assessed in accordance with the Terms of the Scheme and determined on the basis of the completed application form and supporting documentation on a case by case basis.

A total  of 576 applications have been received by the scheme.

To date 153 offers have been made and accepted. Of these accepted offers, 97 were offers of €50,000, 51 were offers of €100,000; and five were offers of €150,000.

Of these, 47 cases have been found ineligible in total, including 20 that have been withdrawn by the applicants. In all of these cases, it was established that the applicant did not have a symphysiotomy.

Judge Clark has not indicated to the Minister or Department officials that there have been false claims.

In addition the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has told Al Jazeera that it feels that the administration of the scheme “is not consistent with the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations nor with the state’s wider human rights obligations”.

Extensive experience

The Terms of Reference for the Scheme were agreed by Government and Judge Maureen Harding Clark was appointed as the independent Assessor to the Scheme in accordance with the Government Decision. Judge Clark is a recently retired High Court Judge and has extensive experience in the area of human rights.

In this regard, Judge Clark was elected to sit as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICC) for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

In 2003 at the end of her first trial, Judge Clark was elected as judge of the ICC an independent, permanent court that tries war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

While the minister is aware of the comments made by the UN Human Rights Committee, the government believes that the establishment of this scheme is a fair and appropriate response.

The Survivors of Symphysiotomy group also tells us it believes its reputation and that of its members has been impugned by the suggestion that women may have been making false claims.

Judge Clark has not indicated to the minister or department officials that there have been false claims.

Of course, we need to hear from Judge Clark in order to put these allegations to her.

Judge Clark has indicated that it is not appropriate for the assessor to conduct interviews regarding these matters while the scheme is ongoing, as the assessor is obliged to remain independent throughout.

Source: Al Jazeera