Ever heard of symphysiotomy? Probably not; my spell check doesn't even know what it is. But it's a painful surgical procedure which involves breaking a woman's pelvis during childbirth that sounds like an ancient torture method but was once an alternative to Caesareans used in maternity hospitals across Ireland in the 20th century.
When members of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) met in Dublin yesterday, they were able to recognize each other thanks to the "signature limp" survivors have. (Other less visible related problems include chronic back pain and incontinence.) Group members, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, say that the operations were carried out without the women's consent "mainly for religious reasons, by obstetricians who were opposed to family planning." Huh; sounds horrifingly familiar.
The survivors met to see the first screening of a documentary about the practice, which compares it to methods used in Kenyan hospitals today. But based on Savita Halappanavar's tragic story — she was denied a medical termination in an Irish hospital even though she was miscarrying and in severe pain, and later died — it's not like things have gotten all that much better for modern-day Irish women, either.
The TheJournal.ie's account of the documentary is sickening:
On screen, former midwife Laura Mann explains that when she was working in Dublin hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, "the big thing was to have children even if you dropped dead."
She discussed Catholic Church influence, and even interference, in maternity hospitals.
Survivor Micheline Gilroy remembers being "held down" and a strange man looking annoyed at the end of her bed. "I thought this was the way," she said. It was her first and only labour.
Even though they now know they underwent symphysiotomies, there is still mystery and unanswered questions around the childbirth experiences of these women.
"‘I'm going to give you a symphysiotomy'," Marie Cowly's doctor told her. "Sure I didn't know what it was," she says. "He could have danced a jig at the end of the bed. I'd never heard of it. I still have no explanation."
The nurses looked sick, some even got physically sick, begins Nora Clarke.
"I saw the hacksaw, I know what hacksaws are. He started cutting my bone and my blood spurted up like a fountain." She remembers how the doctor looked annoyed that he had gotten her blood on his glasses. Until she spoke to her son Wayne about it many years later, Nora believed she had gone through a C-Section.
"You'll never get rid of [the pain] until you're not living anymore," she says during the film.
Hopefully the documentary will help educate more people about what the survivors of symphysiotomy went through, but also put more pressure on Ireland to fully legalize abortion ASAP before more women suffer and die.