What was symphysiotomy?
1) Power, power and bullies, that’s what it was

irish hospital nuns
Kathleen, an English-trained nurse, told the UN Committee
The maternity nurses were the worst. The women would be roaring in the labour ward, and the nurses would say, you should have thought of that when you were getting pregnant. So crude, it was, they’d give them a slap on the bottom. Shut up that roaring, they’d say. Pain relief?
They were very scarce with it, you could scream away… In every hospital here, it was all nuns. They were in charge even though they weren’t trained. Our priests were bullies, too. Power, power and bullies, that’s what it was.

pregnant woman

2) a very simple issue of gross medical negligence, because it was never medically acceptable
3) a violation of human rights




But what was it?

A childbirth operation,. It was invented in France in 1777 and banned in 1798,


because the French Society of Medicine declared that doctors had a duty to perform Caesarean section, when the baby could not be turned or delivered by forceps.

So why was it performed in Ireland in the 20th century?
Conservative Catholic doctors revived it in Ireland in the 1940s as an alternative to Caesarean section.
What doctors?

alex spain
Dr Alex Spain,(1898-1982)

He studied for priesthood but left, started studying medicine in UCD in 1919, pioneered symphysiotomy and by 1949 had performed 43 symphysiotomies.

arthur barry
Dr Arthur Barry, (left)  a fervent advocate of Catholic teachings on human sexuality, argued that symphisiotomy was safe, easier than CS in selected cases, and that it was better, in principle, to take the option that permitted future vaginal deliveries.

He said CS caused doctors to practice the ‘unethical’ procedure of sterilisation and was frequently responsible for ‘encouraging the laity in the improper prevention of pregnancy or in seeking its termination’. By 1955 Barry had overseen 165 symphysyotomies

So how did symphysiotomy become common practice in Irish hospitals?
Since these doctors were working in state-run or state-supervised teaching hospitals their students carried the practice throughout Ireland so it was practiced by all Catholic doctors


When I woke up, he was still stitching me, it took two and a half hours. He then told me that he’d had to break my pelvic bone and that the child had just lived long enough to be baptised, that it was a wee girl and they had called her Mary.’

Maureen wasn’t allowed to see her baby her husband was told to get a box and they handed him back the box, all sealed up.

They wouldn’t show my husband or father and mother the baby and I took it that they must have sawed through the child’s head when they sawed my pelvic bone.’

‘My husband and father dug a grave in Old Castletown Graveyard and put her in it as my grandparents and brothers and sisters were buried there. There was no Mass or service, nothing.’

Maureen was placed in a ward with other women who had given birth to healthy babies and discharged after 10 days, leaving her with a legacy of physical and mental pain.

Symphysiotomy was performed in hospitals all over Ireland into the 1990s, the only country in the resource rich parts of the world to practise this discarded surgery in the mid to late 20th century.

An estimated 1,500 of these 18th century operations were performed there from 1941-2005: some 300 casualties survive today.

symp ladies
Why did they revive a discarded, discredited form of surgery?
Because of religious zealotry for Catholic ideology. A woman of child-bearing years had the Catholic duty to procreate as much as possible even if her body didn’t allow her to – for whatever reason. Only Catholic-approved ‘natural’ contraception, based on knowledge of the fertility cycle, was legal.
Caesarian sections limit the number of pregnancies, with most obstetricians advising sterilization after 3. Sterilisation was unobtainable in Ireland

So these doctors chose, instead, to carry out this butchery of literally carving women up with saws to ensure future vaginal deliveries
They urged people to focus on the long-term benefits for subsequent deliveries.
Hundreds of Irish women unknowingly and without consent underwent symphysiotomies during childbirth
What happens during symphisiotomy?
Doctors break a woman’s pelvis, usually before or during labour. Women have their pelvises severed under general or local anaesthetic during pregnancy, before the onset of labour, or post-natally, following delivery by Caesarean section while the surgical wound is still open.
Most women were left for many hours in labour before being set upon by hospital staff, and, frequently under the gaze of male students, operated upon without their consent. Then, still in labour, the infant’s head acting as a battering ram, they were left for as long as it took, hours or days, before being forced to push the baby out through the agony of an unhinging pelvis.
Women unable to delivery vaginally following symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were eventually delivered by Caesarean section by doctors who had earlier withheld this operation from them.
What type of woman was subjected to symphisiotomy?

They were usually young, vulnerable women having their first child.
Given their Catholic up-bringing they knew little of the reproductive process or procedures relating to obstetrics.
Hospital Discharge
Most women left hospital after a week or two not knowing their pelvises had been broken during childbirth.
Post-natal care
Women were usually discharged from hospital without medical advice or painkillers.
Hospitals failed to follow up their patients
Little or no community care.
Family doctors providing a maternity service on behalf of the State and State employed public health nurses generally ignored the fact that young and previously healthy women – were unable to walk.
Life-long consequences of symphysiotomy

tri bouquet
Gifts to women from the Irish State

walking difficulties
urinary and faecal incontinence,
fistulas (which never heal)
organ prolapse
chronic pain
lack of interest in sex
infant death or cerebral impairment

Comment: The performance of these operations without patient consent and in the absence of medical necessity in preference to a far safer and long established Caesarean section – constituted torture and acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and breached human rights.

Here’s what the survivors of symphysiotomy told the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland
Prof Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairman of the Committee:

nigel rodley
The Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, the child abuse, the symphysiotomy – it’s quite a collection and it’s a collection that has carried on [for a] period that it’s hard to imagine any state party tolerating. And I guess I can’t prevent myself from observing that [they] are not disconnected from the institutional belief system that has predominated in the state party.

tri bouquet

Comment: Lest we forget. way we were single mums/ on demand now/

Remember: neither church nor state has a role to play in regulating women’s bodies

Update 22/11/2016: 

Women who underwent the controversial childbirth procedure known as symphysiotomy received payouts totalling €34m from a no-fault redress board.

399 women received individual payments of €50,000, €100,000 or €150,000.


pregnant woman

Symphysiotomy in the National Maternity Hospital and Coombe

‘The murder of infants’? Symphysiotomy in Ireland, 1944–66




5 thoughts on “Symphysiotomy

  1. Hi Ben …a very thoughtful piece. This can seem a sad screwed up place at times…barbarous, really.We don’t really seem to have pulled ourselves very far out of the pit of the medieval .People , even to this day are in thrall to superstition- led practices. I think that there have been many changes in this past forty years and the church does not have that same rabid hold on most people now, though.


  2. thanks Paddy, nice to hear from you again- hope you’re keeping well and enjoying the summer – about the mediaeval mindset – well that’s what catholicism (in the jansenist form we had in ireland) promulgates – ill-treat women, physically and mentally abuse girls and boys (rape them when you get the chance) , convince men to become celibate, monopolise schools and hospitals, censor books, films, magazines, radio and TV programmes etc to ensure people remain ignorant, convince them it’s all in their best interests otherwise they’ll go to limbo (now abolished), purgatory (on the way out) or hell (did it ever exist outside their warped imaginations?)- no wonder the modern world didn’t breakthrough these barriers until the late 1990s. But until then, men women and children were ill-treated, abused and in some cases killed. What a legacy!!!


  3. forgot to add as Sir Nigel said – political parties and the state were complicit in all of this! They’ve had 98 years to set up a decent, modern Republic and just look how far they’ve come in “cherishing the children of the nation” – mass emigration in nearly every decade and it’s still on-going!!


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