GCU research leads to compensation scheme for Irish women

29 July 2014

Professor Oonagh Walsh

Professor Oonagh Walsh

The work of a Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) historian has helped persuade the Irish government to introduce a €34 million compensation scheme for women who suffered trauma through the use of a now discredited surgical procedure.

Symphysiotomy, a procedure to widen the pelvis allowing childbirth when there is an issue of obstructed labour, was carried out in some Irish maternity hospitals until the mid-1960s (and in one hospital as late as the 1980s), principally due to the dangers associated with caesarean section and religious objections to contraception.

However, for some Irish women the procedure resulted in chronic pain and limited mobility, incontinence, neck and back problems and psychological problems.

GCU historian Professor Oonagh Walsh analysed symphysiotomy in Ireland between 1944 and 1984 – the period in which the practice was employed in some Irish hospitals - finding that, “many women who underwent symphysiotomies have had their lives substantially impaired as a result”.

Her significant evidence report involved an independent academic research study and consultation with victims and medical professionals to provide comment.

Professor Walsh stated that “survivors have stressed the importance of a public acknowledgement of regret for the procedure’s use” as well as emphasising redress by the government through support for affected women.

She said: “Successive Irish governments have tried to put a redress system in place. My role was to establish the number of procedures and the medical context around them, and provide evidence upon which a redress scheme could be based.

“As a historian it has been fascinating to work on a report with such a public policy impact.”

The Department of Health in the government of Ireland has formally recognised “the pain and suffering that many of the women who underwent this procedure suffered”. It thanked Professor Oonagh Walsh, whose report was “crucial” to reaching the government’s decision.

The ex-gratia scheme will allow women to accept an award of between €50,000 and €150,000, rather than pursuing their case through the courts. There could be up to 300 women receiving compensation.

Ireland’s Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald defended Ireland's redress scheme for survivors of symphysiotomy at the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva this month.

In some cases, symphysiotomy was carried out after the baby had been delivered by caesarean section. There are around 10 women still living who had this particular procedure. Reports used as evidence state that in a number of cases, the procedure was carried out without the woman’s knowledge or consent.

Joining GCU in 2012, Professor Walsh has research interests in gender and medical histories and in the nineteenth century history of Irish psychiatry in particular. She works both within the Institute for  Society and Social Justice and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, a collaborative research group between GCU and the University of Strathclyde. She has published on a range of areas in modern Irish history, including Protestant women’s social, political and cultural experiences, the development of the asylum system in the west of Ireland, and twentieth century obstetrics.

Her work on Ireland’s great famine, which may have led to high levels of mental illness amongst later generations of Irish people, both at home and abroad, was well received at a Science Week event held in the Institute of Technology Sligo.