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A brutal, medically unnecessary operation on Irish women during childbirth was a predominantly Catholic practice, according to survivors of a so-called symphysiotomy. I think I might have preferred the rack.

Via CNN (caution, gruesome descriptions ahead):

Rita McCann still remembers the day when her joy at the prospect of giving birth to her first child turned into sheer terror. It was December 15th, 1957 when she went into labor at a hospital in Dublin, Ireland. …”I got a local anesthetic and the torture began.”

As a room full of medical students and doctors looked on, McCann says she could feel the pressure of a scalpel cutting into her. From then on, it was “just agony, literally agony,” she recalls. … McCann, struggling against the searing pain, couldn’t see what the surgeon was doing to her. She assumed he was performing a Caesarian section, but he wasn’t. He was slicing into her pelvis to make way for her baby. McCann, now 88, was undergoing a symphysiotomy — a procedure seldom used by other industrialized nations by the mid-20th century as Caesarian sections became safer.

Symphysiotomy is a surgical procedure whereby the pubic symphysis — the joint that holds the pelvis together — is cut [usually with a saw] in order to widen the birth canal during labor.

#5: Pubic symphysis

Another Irish mother-to-be who underwent the procedure without informed consent was Cora (last name not given).

[S]he was just 17 when doctors performed a pubiotomy (a procedure related to symphysiotomy) on her during the birth of her first child in 1972. “I was screaming. It’s not working, [the anesthetic] I said, I can feel everything … I seen him go and take out a proper hacksaw, like a wood saw … a half-circle with a straight blade and a handle,” she said. “The blood shot up to the ceiling, up onto his glasses, all over the nurses… Then he goes to the table, and gets something like a solder iron and puts it on me, and stopped the bleeding. … They told me to push [the baby girl] out. She must have been out before they burnt me. He put the two bones together, there was a burning pain. I [felt] I was going to die.”

But why? If there were complications at childbirth, why not go to a Caesarean section? In Western hospitals, C-sections have been been performed since the 1880s and were fairly routine no later than the 1930s. Why would Irish doctors subject patients to the brutality of a symphysiotomy or a pubiotomy well into the 1980s?

According to Wikipedia,

It was supported amongst Catholics because they believed it helped the birth of more babies. It was generally believed that the Catholic church supported the procedure, and the deference of people to the Catholic church in Ireland meant that doctors could make decisions without consulting the patients. Many of the victims said that, according to a 2012 study, the Catholic church “encouraged, if not insisted upon, symphysiotomies.”

[A]lthough symphysiotomies were phased out in most medical institutions across the country, [one large Catholic hospital] was practicing the procedure up until the early 1980s.

It took me a while to realize that symphysiotomies do not obviate the need for vaginal or caesarian delivery.

After the surgery, women were still in labor. Sometimes the baby took hours, or days, to come; then they had to push for as long as it took, through the agony of an unhinged pelvis. … Those unable to give birth vaginally were eventually given the Caesarean section that had earlier been withheld.

Also, despite the physical and mental trauma inflicted, symphysiotomies

… were covert operations: three or four decades elapsed in most cases before women understood that their pelvises had been broken. Many were having a first baby, and knew nothing about childbirth. All of them, without exception, assumed, or were told, that whatever was done was necessary to save the life of the baby.

CNN again:

Roughly 1,500 women in Ireland were subjected to symphysiotomy between the 1940s and 1984, according to the government.

The excruciating effects are not just present during the operation, but can stay with the mother her entire life.

The procedure can cause chronic pain and “rupturing of the bladder,” which can lead to incontinence, according to Irish physiotherapist Jessica O’Dowd. In cases where the pubic symphysis is completely severed, patients may get “earlier onset arthritis and joint degeneration,” O’Dowd says. “The mechanics of your whole lower half of your body are changed because of that joint.”

“The surgery was an abuse of power, a pre-emptive surgical strike against the practice of birth control by obstetricians who disliked Caesarean section, on account of its association with what Archbishop [of Dublin Charles] McQuaid termed the ‘crime of birth-prevention,’” [Marie] O’Connor [the Chairperson of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, or SoS], wrote in 2012.

A government-commissioned report, published a year later,

… acknowledged the influence of religion on obstetricians in a Catholic country where birth control was illegal from 1935 to 1980. It notes that Alexander Spain and Arthur Barry — the doctors who championed the procedures at Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital in the 1940s and 50s — were “devout Catholics, serving a predominantly Catholic patient population, and they made no secret of their willing conformity to religious precepts in the treatment of patients.”

And why would they? Proud servants of God and the Church, they did as their masters, earthly and celestial, commanded.

(Image via Wikipedia)

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