Meet Bessie the cow
To understand what happened to pregnant women in Catholic Irish hospitals between 1944 and 1984, it’s necessary to begin with the story of a cow. We’ll call her Bessie. It's her job to breed, and Farmer Brown wants as many calves out of her as he can get.
Unfortunately, when it’s time to deliver her first calf, Bessie has difficulty. The head is too large to fit through her pelvis, and so Farmer Brown calls the vet. After examining Bessie, the vet gives Farmer Brown two options. First, says the vet, we can do a Caesarian section right quick, get the calf out of her, and both calf and cow will do fine. But a Caesarian section will limit the number of calves Bessie can give you during her lifetime, to just three or so.
The second option is to do a procedure called a symphysiotomy, where the ligaments that connect Bessie’s pelvis together are sawn apart with a hacksaw, to give a little more room in the birth canal. Now, says the vet, a symphysiotomy may kill the first calf, but it will let Bessie have as many calves as she possibly can after this unfortunate first one. The downside, after that first calf dying, is that poor Bessie is not going to be able to walk for a while, and there may also be bladder and urethra injuries, fistulas, infection, ongoing pain, and difficulty walking for the rest of her life.
Now Farmer Brown likes Bessie, and he does not want her to suffer. But he paid a lot for her, and he planned to get a lot more than just three calves out of her. He feels bad, but he doesn’t see that he has any choice. He tells the vet to do the symphysiotomy. He does not ask Bessie what she wants, because how ridiculous. She’s a cow. He also does not ask the vet to explain to Bessie what’s going to happen to her. Again, how ridiculous. So the vet spreads Bessie's legs and ties them so she can't move, and then goes to work with his hacksaw.
The surgery is a success, though Bessie's calf dies. Bessie eventually recovers, and goes on to live a long, painful life, dutifully delivering calves every year though she can barely walk because of chronic pain and instability in her pelvis.
Farmer Brown feels bad for her, but he knows this is just the way the world is. Cows are breeders, and it’s a cow's job to make lots of calves, and to suffer if that’s what's necessary for her to fulfill her duties.
What happened to Irish women?
Symphysiotomies were an option for difficult deliveries starting about 1600. As on poor Bessie, they are performed with a hacksaw. They were mostly replaced by Caesarean section in the early 20th century, when the maternal death rates from Caesareans decreased due to improved hygiene, better techniques, and the development of antibiotics.
In the 1940s, Irish state maternity hospitals pioneered symphysiotomy as the procedure of choice when a woman encountered difficulty delivering her infant. Symphysiotomy was used instead of Caesarean section in these hospitals, even though the infant mortality rate was much higher with symphysiotomy, as were the complications to the mother, including lifelong pain, lifelong difficulty walking, fistulas and bladder injury.
Sometimes, instead of a symphysiotomy, a pubiotomy (sawing through the pelvis bone itself) was performed, with even longer and more difficult recovery, and more lifelong complications.
Roughly 1,500 women, unknowingly and without consent, underwent symphysiotomies and pubiotomies during childbirth in the Republic of Ireland between 1944 and 1984. (1) These procedures were routinely performed at state maternity hospitals, which were heavily influenced by the country’s Catholic culture.
Why, you might ask. Why continue to employ a procedure that kills infants at unnecessarily high rates? Or, as Dr. Chassar Moir, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Oxford, demanded of Ireland's National Maternity Hospital, a deeply Catholic institution, “Is it then your policy to sacrifice the firstborn baby, and to use its dead or dying body as nothing more than a battering ram to stretch its mother’s pelvis?”
Why continue to employ a procedure that caused permanent and unnecessary damage to the health and well-being of mothers, when a safer option was readily available?
Why withhold information from the mothers, denying them the ability to decide or even understand what was being done to them?
Why then withhold all information about what had been done to them, so that for decades, many women had no idea why they had chronic disabilities and pain?
To their doctors, and to the maternity hospitals, the goal was to force women to follow Catholic morals and have large families of nine or ten children, just like the goal of Farmer Brown was to force Bessie to have as many calves as possible. Caesareans were problematic because at the time, medical dogma required that all births after a Caesarean be by Caesarean only. Medical dogma also limited the number of Caesarean births a woman could have to three, for her own safety. To keep the number of pregnancies to three, doctors would recommend birth control or perform hysterectomies. In other words, Caesareans might be safer for both mother and infant, but they stopped women from having large families. As Dr. Arthur Barry, a symphysiotomy proponent, stated, Caesarean section was undesirable because it “was frequently responsible for ‘encouraging the laity in the improper prevention of pregnancy or in seeking its termination.’”
Encouraging the laity in the improper prevention of pregnancy. In other words, anything that allowed women to limit the number of their pregnancies was improper. Anything that led them to even imagine they could limit their pregnancies was improper. Because Catholic morals required that women had no say in the use of their bodies as baby factories. (2)
[Lest some readers jump to the conclusion that this barbaric practice was conducted without the knowledge and approval of the church, this article from the Irish Times provides information that makes it very clear that the Catholic Church in Ireland was deeply complicit in this practice.]
Women’s rights are human rights
Human beings have the right to be informed about medical procedures that may be performed on them, and they have the right of consent. They have the right to know all options, and they have the right to choose the procedure they feel is best for them and their infants. They have the right to be treated with dignity. But these women were denied their human rights. They were treated like Bessie the cow, not just when they were in labor, but throughout their lives. Because to their church and to their Catholic doctors, they were, literally, animals. They were breeders.
Some of the women were also used, without their consent, for training purposes. (3) This video shows one woman’s harrowing and heartbreaking story. She explains that her baby was re-positioned to prevent a normal delivery, so that the obstetrician could perform a symphysiotomy (with the usual hacksaw) while a room full of students watched and learned.
Today there are only about 250 of these women still alive, and they are fighting their government for recognition of what happened to them, and for compensation for their suffering. The government, as governments do, is trying to weasel out of its liability. For over fifteen years, reports The Journal, an Irish paper, the Department of Health and the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists “have denied, delayed and obfuscated, stymying survivors’ campaign for truth and justice. Successive Ministers for Health have refused to initiate an independent inquiry, while the Institute of Obstetricians has issued statements which included the benefits of symphysiotomy.”
in 2014, the Irish government, under pressure from the United Nations, created a compensation fund, which limits compensation to most victims to $50,000 (far less than Irish citizens receive after falling and breaking a leg on the job). The government admits no wrongdoing, and victims who receive compensation must waive further legal action. Chillingly, the Irish government has now announced that it will destroy the medical records of the victims.
All these women’s stories are heartbreaking. They are also deeply frightening, particularly if you are a woman who was raised Catholic. Because they demonstrate with horrific clarity the end result of the Catholic belief system. They demonstrate that to the Catholic Church, our purpose is to breed. We are breeders. And before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, No, thank God that’s not true where I live, let me remind you that the Catholic belief system is the same all over the world. And it hasn’t changed since this abomination was inflicted on Irish mothers.
1 Draft Report on Symphysiotomy in Ireland 1944 - 1984, Dr Oonagh Walsh
2 While some readers may argue that Catholic women have access to the ‘rhythm’ method of avoiding sex during periods of fertility, these Irish women had no access to the knowledge that would have allowed them to practice even this primitive and often ineffective method of birth control
3 Catholic medical missionaries needed to learn the procedure so that in Africa, where they were headed, they could use it in remote areas where Caesarian sections were unavailable.