The procedure involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments

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.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Is this true? HOW can something so heinous possibly be TRUE?? AND because of Christianity??? Just because it was *only* women involved, and women don’t count, especially not when compared against church doctrine and dogma??

    WHY do people still claim there’s anything good in religion? Whatever’s considered “good” about religion is what everybody does that’s good without needing religion.

    “If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist.” – UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot

  2. ApostateltsopA says

    What… The FUCK!??
    Fucking catholicism is a plague on the Irish.

    I can’t say it any better than this. Fuck Catholic Doctrine.

  3. =8)-DX says

    Seems to be quite a bit of rather unuseful “squeeminess” in this article: the heinous thing here is continued use of an outdated and dangerous medical procedure for “reasons”. The procedure itself according to the descriptions quite possibly saved quite a few women’s lives, especially during times when childbirth was often fatal. “The procedure involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments” is not really a good title: the icky gross painful and messy aspect of the procedure is not what’s wrong here: ceasarians involve the slicing through of skin, muscle and uterus. The horrible thing is “I’m a doctor who wont do my job, and what is best for my patient, because I think god wants the baby to come out this way instead of another”.

    The reason I’m pointing to this is that “icky” gets thrown about so often by the anti-abortion crowd in exactly the same context. Otherwise yeah – the wages of Catholic reproductive dogma in Ireland are horrible and dispicable.

  4. karmacat says

    The worst part was that they didn’t give women any choice and it was all about making sure she would continue to have babies. It is an example of reducing women to the role of breeders.

  5. Donnie says

    Are we allowed to name this “Doctor” since no charges have been brought, or name the victim because she has not gone to the police?

    I apologize for the morbid sarcasm. This is pure, as you said, sadism. This procedure is more in line with The Inquisition.

  6. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    In the early days of the Web when we were still experimenting with structures for comment forums like this, Roger Hurwitz from the MIT AI Lab suggested I look at the Talmud as an example of an annotation service. The canon of the Talmud was closed in 200 or so which limited later additions to annotations on the text. And there are annotations on the annotations.

    It is an interesting model and can be seen as prototypical of the structure of Web discourse. Reading some of the verses recently to reply to a piece someone had written on the Virgin Birth making the rather silly claim that nobody had accused Jesus of being a bastard in the first 1800 years of Christianity, I realized that the early Talmudic scholars also provide the archetype of the Internet flame war.

    Not only is it untrue that nobody questioned the legitimacy of Jesus, the accusation is made in strident terms and in places where it is entirely unnecessary. For examples see the following:

    Much of the anti-Christian flamage was suppressed with the rise of Christianity and especially Christian scholars who could read Hebrew. European copies of the Talmud had to be edited and redacted to avoid the authorities shortening the owner by a head.

    But the rampant misogyny survived.

    The more I look at the origins of Christianity and Judaism, the more they look like more recent inventions that are easier to dismiss because we know the life story of Brigham Young or L Ron Hubbard.

  7. says

    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.

    Why the fuck was this atrocity ever considered preferable to C-sections, either medically or doctrinally? This is outrageously ridiculous and sadistic even by Catholic standards.

    Has anyone seen any word from the Church hinting at an admission that this was wrong?

  8. samgardner says

    Unuseful squeeminess? I suppose. I have some unuseful squeeminess about episiotomies, too, but at least I can recognize that they are a less invasive option than a Caesarian and better than just letting the flesh tear.

    When they’re talking about cutting through ligaments and potentially sawing through bone, well… I find it difficult to just disregard squeeminess. You’re right, though, that it’s not the driver of the objection.

  9. says

    I assumed the point of saying “slicing through the cartilage and ligaments” was the fact that sliced ligaments don’t regenerate the way muscle does. Do I have that wrong? Isn’t that why a popped Achilles tendon is such a big deal, and why a torn ACL requires surgery and protracted recovery?

  10. =8)-DX says

    I guess the excessively damaging nature of the procedure is relevant to the title… it was mainly that, followed by the first quoted paragraph (a ceasarian or an abortion could be described in similar terms) that gave it an odd emphasis for me (guess I’ve read too many anti-abortion pamphlets during my youth). And of course once more fuck Alex Spain and any other Irish doctor who performed these procedures at a time when ceasarian sections became sufficiently safe.

  11. Maureen Brian says

    =8)-DX @ 15,

    I have a revolutionary idea for you. Shall we allow the women to whom this was done against best practice and without consent to decide how squeamish they want to be about it? They are the ones, the women my age and younger, who have suffered decades of incontinence and pain, whose social and work lives were limited, who were sometimes shunned and are now barely able to move.

    I’d say it’s their call what language they use and how gruesome they need to be to make their point. The point they are making at the moment is a political one – that in exchange for very modest compensation now offered it is too much to ask that they sign some form agreeing that no-one, ever, did anything wrong. To make their point they have to be sure that no-one anywhere can pretend that this was some minor inconvenience.

    BASIC PRINCIPLE No 957: When women are truly free they will get to choose their own vocabulary.

  12. Maureen Brian says

    The theory was – this is medicine as practiced 60 or so years ago – that once you’d had a caesarian then you couldn’t have a vaginal birth and that no one would survive more than 3 caesarians.

    History moved on – a vaginal birth after a caesarian, several indeed, proved to be perfectly possible. Once some thought was given to where the initial incision was made then there was no top limit because you could make a transverse cut along the bikini line – parting the muscle fibres rather than destroying them – and then a third one wasn’t going to be the end of you.

    Well, history moved on but in Ireland the church’s rules about not artificially limiting how many children a woman might have kept on counting for more than medical knowledge or the patient’s well-being.

  13. Funny Diva says

    iirc from some months ago when this came up on FTB…
    the entire Irish medical profession and society at large then turned around and denied why these women had severe pain and mobility limitations: the lazy sluts! It’s not that their pelvic girdle was permanently and completely f*cking compromised or anything!

    And now, I’m going to take advantage of this afternoon sun-break to go walk off some of the RAAAAAGE I always feel when it’s made so very obvious that EVERYONE but the woman herself has ownership of her body–in too many cultures and in too many so-called MODERN times.


  14. canonicalkoi says

    Jesus H. CHRIST!! I’m doing the female version of the squinchy-up thing my husband does when he sees a guy get hit in the balls. Which is exactly what I’m wanting to do to those “doctors”. “First, do no harm…”, my ass. And no, it doesn’t say, “First, do no harm, unless it’s a woman and then, like, whatever.” Shaking my fucking head right now.

  15. says

    I’ve always avoided the use of profanity online, but this made my blood boil. I had to walk away and calm down for 20 minutes. The complete lack of concern for Mary as a human being is barbaric. Small wonder it’s the same country that imprisoned Savita Halappanavar on a table for days while she slowly died in agony.

  16. lorn says

    One of the reasons for the Catholic church to dislike caesarian section was that it was the conventional wisdom that a caesarian made delivery dangerous to the mother and infant and that pregnancy had to be prevented after three of them. This being an entirely arbitrary number. The thought was to eliminate the need for birth control or sterilization, both against Catholic doctrine.

    Typical of Catholic values and priorities the potential damage to the woman’s body and integrity was entirely secondary to the doctrinal imperative to maintain the viability of the woman as a birthing machine. This made worse because the damage to the woman’s body is obvious whereas her loss of birthing potential is entirely theoretical. She might have difficulty with a pregnancy, if she got pregnant, versus the fact that she will be mutilated is a certainty if a symphysiotomy is used.

    For more of the gory details, follow the links for more details:

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