This article was first published in The Times.
From this week women in Ireland who underwent barbaric surgical procedures during childbirth will be entitled to apply for compensation under a new redress scheme unveiled by the Irish Government. The procedures of symphysiotomy and pubiotomy were performed on over 1500 women from the 1920s to 1984, causing severe side-effects and life-long pain.
There will be four basic levels of award under the scheme:
(i) Those that can just establish that they underwent the procedure will get €50,000 under the assumption that they endured pain and suffering for a period of up to three years.
(ii) Those that can establish significant disability that lasted longer than three years will be entitled to approximately €100,000.
(iii) Those that can establish they underwent a C-section and a symphysiotomy will get a baseline award of 100k or 150k.
(iv) Those (a very small number) that can establish they underwent a particularly brutal procedure called a pubiotomy will get the higher baseline award of 150k.
At present, there are reportedly more than 150 cases before the High Court, but women who continue with their court cases will not be entitled to payment under the redress scheme. The scheme forces women to choose between compensation and true justice. It fails to explain why these barbaric operations took place and completely ignores the issue of accountability. As the UN Human Rights Committee reminded the Irish government earlier this year, meaningful redress would have such measures at its heart.
Were the doctors using symphysiotomy to control women’s reproductive health? Did they see symphysiotomy as a gateway to unlimited childbearing, unlike Caesarean section, used for difficult births in Ireland since the end of the 1930s?
Were they using this to train medical staff to perfect the surgery for Ireland, and for use in missionary hospitals overseas owned by religious congregations?
It is also worth noting that a woman who underwent a symphysiotomy procedure at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in County Louth, was awarded €450,000 by the High Court in 2012. It therefore seems that the scheme falls short of providing adequate financial compensation to many women whose rights were violated.
In representing claimants in clinical negligence and abuse cases over many years, I have come to recognise that it is also immensely important to them that there is some admission that something wrong was done, and that there is a genuine apology. In fact, what very often causes them to bring legal action in the first place is that when something went wrong, they were treated brusquely, and no apology was ever made.
Whilst the new redress scheme is a step forward, I would urge the Irish Government to do everything possible to ensure that there is an explanation of what went wrong and an effort to bring those responsible to account. For many survivors who have suffered terrible consequences for many years, a full apology and explanation is just as important as financial compensation.