Rights Court Turns Away Irish Women Suing Over Birth Procedure

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. (Photo via CherryX/Wikipedia)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Three Irish women who say an outdated and controversial surgical procedure was performed on them without their consent during childbirth lost their legal battle before Europe’s top rights court Thursday. 

The European Court of Human Rights found their claims that the Irish government had failed to protect them from inhumane and degrading treatment when they underwent symphysiotomies in the 1960s and 1970s were inadmissible. 

A symphysiotomy surgically removes part of the pelvic bone to allow for a baby to pass through during childbirth. The chainsaw was invented to make the procedure easier. Sometimes called a pelviotomy, the procedure was common for women who experienced obstructed labor but fell out of favor as the cesarean section became safer. 

“The court has great sympathy with the plight of women who only became cognizant of the fact that they had undergone an obstetric procedure several decades after the event. In the field of medical negligence, domestic courts and commentators have referred in recent years to attitudes of an earlier age, when medical paternalism was more widely accepted,” the Strasbourg-based court wrote in one of three decisions.  

Despite their sympathy, the seven judges on the panel found that the women, identified as L.F., K.O’S. and W.M., had not exhausted domestic options and the Irish government has offered compensation to victims. 

The court, which was established by the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, hears cases on political and civil rights. It is considered a court of last resort, so applicants must first attempt all legal options in their home countries before filing a complaint. 

Following the publication of the so-called Walsh report, the cumulation of a government-commissioned investigation, the Irish government announced a 34 million euro ($41 million) compensation plan for women who were forced to undergo the procedure. Payments ranged from 50,000 euros ($60,000) to 150,000 euros ($180,000), depending on the severity of the injuries. 

In rejecting the women’s cases, the Court of Human Rights noted that “the actions complained of were not directly attributable to the state or to any of its agents, and were demonstrated not to have been carried out in bad faith or to have been unjustified by the relevant practice standards.”

“The court considers that in the particular circumstances of this case the civil proceedings, supplemented by the independent Walsh report, the ex gratia payment scheme, which enabled all the women who had undergone a symphysiotomy to obtain a not inconsequential award of compensation, and the provision of access, free of charge, to healthcare and individual pathways of care, sufficed to meet any obligation the state may have been under to provide redress,” the ruling states.  

Women often experienced side effects from symphysiotomies, including pain, difficulty walking and incontinence. In Ireland, some 1,500 women underwent the procedure, many without giving their consent. Many women didn’t even learn they had received it until decades later. K.O’S gave birth in 1960 but says she didn’t find out she had a symphysiotomy until 2005, despite having incontinence and difficulty walking following the birth. 

Some Irish hospitals, under pressure from the Catholic Church, continued to perform the procedure long after it was discontinued in other places. The church opposed all methods of birth control, including hysterectomies, and wanted to ensure women could have multiple births. At the time, it was widely believed that women could only undergo three C-sections and further pregnancies would have to be prevented or terminated. 

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