And speaking of doing horrible things to people…The Guardian reports another one of Ireland’s grim secrets.
“Mary” was delighted to be pregnant at 23, but she was in labor for a long time, and they got worried about her heartbeat, so they called in the doctor.
When the doctor arrived, he did something Mary cannot forget. “They gave me gas and air and an injection, and took me to another room, where they tied my legs up on each side,” she recalls. “There were two nurses on each side of me. I saw this doctor at the end of my bed with a big, long silver thing. They made a hole in your private parts, and he inserted this silver thing up and cut the pubic bone and pushed it over to widen your pelvis for you to deliver your baby yourself.”
Petrified and in agony, Mary had been subjected to a symphysiotomy – a controversial operation that was seldom used in the rest of Europe after the mid-20th century, but which was carried out on an estimated 1,500 women in Ireland between the 1940s and 1980s.
The procedure involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint (or in extreme cases, called pubiotomy, sawing through the bone of the pelvis itself) to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered unobstructed.
What could possibly go wrong? Besides everything?
Critics blame the continued use of the operation on a toxic mix of medical experimentation, Catholic aversion to caesarean sections and an institutional disregard for women’s autonomy. They claim it has left hundreds of surviving women with life-long pain, disability and emotional trauma. For some in Ireland, it is yet another scandal perpetrated against women and girls, joining revelations over the Magdalene laundries (where “wayward” women were abused), the deaths of children at mother-and-baby homes and sex abuse in the Catholic church.
It ruined Mary physically.
“I hold down a job, but only because of the painkillers,” she says. “I have arthritis in my hip and in the bottom of my spine. I walk with a limp. No one can help – there’s no way back. Getting up and down stairs or getting up on a chair I can’t really do. You get one leg up, then the other slips down.”
The worst problem, she says, is incontinence. “I wear pads the whole time, and have been since the age of 23. My sisters all had babies and none had this problem. A lot of people might have a little leak, but this is a whole flow … It’s very embarrassing.”
Mary and her husband went on to have three boys as well as their daughter. She believes she should have been offered a caesarean section much earlier. But campaigners and historians say it was exactly to avoid caesarean sections that symphysiotomy was used in Ireland.
Symphysiotomy was first used in the 19th century. As caesarean sections grew safer, the use of the operation declined in the developed world. But Alex Spain, the master of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital (NMH) until 1948, disapproved. According to Jacqueline Morrissey, a historian who <a class=” data-link-name=”in body link” data-component=”in-body-link”>began investigating the practice in the 1990s, it was Spain’s Catholic beliefs, not his medical judgment, that guided his actions. At the time, the established medical consensus was that having more than three caesarean sections was dangerous, and that further pregnancies would have to be stopped by sterilisation or contraception. Spain considered this unacceptable, says Morrissey, and talked about “the mutilating operation of sterilisation and marital difficulty”.
So that’s terrifying.
The real argument, according to Mairead Enright, a law lecturer at the University of Kent who specialises in religion and law, is whether medical staff were negligent in using “a procedure so inherently defective that any doctor should have realised it was wrong”.
“The consequences for women afterwards were so severe that they should have known it was not the proper way to go,” she argues. “Depriving a woman of one medical treatment, which has problems, and substituting another that has guaranteed morbidity to circumvent contraception is gender-based violence.”
More sadism from the loving god.