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Hope for symphysiotomy survivors with Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2013

16 April, 2013 - by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD


Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health and Children, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, has moved an Amendment Bill in the Dáil that would allow survivors of symphysiotomy seek legal redress for the injuries they suffered during what is described as a "barbaric act" in Irish hospitals when they were giving birth to their children.  Deputy Ó Caoláin expressed his hope that the Bill would be supported by all members of the Dáil.

He said, "The Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill is brought forward in a non-partisan, non-party political way. It arises directly from the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Support Group for Victims of Symphysiotiomy which has cross-party and non-party support and participation.

"When I published this Bill last week I acknowledged the significant and sincere contribution of TDs and Senators of all parties and Independents in support of the campaign of the victims of symphysiotomy for justice over recent years. We have worked hard and well together and it is my earnest hope that we will see this critically important piece of legislation safely across the line to be fine-tuned, as required, by Government in the Committee, Report and final stages of its passage."

Deputy Ó Caoláin went on to say, "The overwhelming majority of those subjected to symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were young women having their first child and whose knowledge of childbirth was extremely limited.

"Many did not realise that the injuries they suffered were other than the normal effects of childbirth. Nor did they understand, for many years, and in most cases decades later, that these horrendous consequences were the result of childbirth operations that had been performed on them without their knowledge or consent.

"These were, in effect, clandestine operations, which were concealed from them by sections of the medical profession."

He said, "The Bill before us is necessary because the bar created by the Statute of Limitations sets a time limit of two years in initiating actions in personal injury cases. While in other jurisdictions judges retain inherent jurisdiction to allow cases to proceed where justice demands, Irish legislation provides no discretion whatsoever to the courts in determining whether cases may advance."

Appealing for cross-party support for the Bill he said, "This outstanding issue of truth and justice for women who were mutilated in the Irish hospital system is just as grave as the scandal of institutional child sexual abuse or the ordeal of women in Magdalene laundries. In all of those cases the injuries and wrongs done to the women and children concerned was compounded by concealment, lies, denials, decades of silence from the State and then inaction or long delayed action or inadequate action by the State when the reality was exposed.

"What was, in effect, a conspiracy of powerful and unaccountable men in the medical profession made the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy possible in Irish hospitals, with no protection for the women concerned from the health system or from any other arm of Government. They were simply abandoned to their fate.

"Let us not compound these crimes– for crimes they were – by further neglect in this Dáil."

Full text of speech follows:

I formally move the Second Stage of the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2013.

I want to begin by welcoming once again here to Leinster House many of the women who suffered the barbaric act of symphysiotomy in Irish hospitals. They have come in such numbers that the public gallery has not been sufficient to accommodate them all. Fáilte romhaibh uile anseo.

More than once in the past these women have left Leinster House feeling disappointed and let down by the political system. I sincerely hope that is not the case again tomorrow night and at the very outset of this debate I appeal individually to each and every Teachta Dála, regardless of where they sit in this chamber, to support these women by supporting this Bill.

I believe that the appeal of the women is now being heard by Government and that it will allow passage of Second Stage of this Bill.

Such a decision would be a step towards justice and truth for the survivors of the barbaric act of symphysiotomy.

This would mean that the Bill would pass Second Stage in the Dáil and be referred to Committee.
There should be no question of shelving the Bill at this stage. I urge that Committee Stage be scheduled as soon as possible and that the Government should facilitate its passage there also, with amendments if required.

The Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill is brought forward in a non-partisan, non-party political way. It arises directly from the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Support Group for Victims of Symphysiotiomy which has cross-party and non-party support and participation.

When I published this Bill last week I acknowledged the significant and sincere contribution of TDs and Senators of all parties and Independents in support of the campaign of the victims of symphysiotomy for justice over recent years. We have worked hard and well together and it is my earnest hope that we will see this critically important piece of legislation safely across the line to be fine-tuned, as required, by Government in the Committee, Report and final stages of its passage.

At the press conference last week survivors of symphysiotomy again spoke movingly and harrowingly of their ordeal. The physical reality was put starkly and simply by Rita McCann: “If the linchpin of your body is broken, everything else falls apart.”

She said no-one in the hospital where she underwent the ordeal made any attempt to tell her about the operation she was having.   “I was taken in and abused,” she said.

And of course, like all the survivors, she lives to this day with the severe physical pain and discomfort and the deep emotional trauma caused by this barbaric operation.

We could fill the entire three hours of this debate in private members time with identical accounts and it would still not suffice to convey the enormity of what was done to these women.

It is estimated that some 1500 women suffered this form of abuse in Irish hospitals between the 1950s and the 1980s. In many cases it was long years later before they realised or were made aware of exactly what had been done to them. They had to live with the pain and the trauma without any explanation. Even today women are still coming forward, hearing the stories of fellow victims and realising that this too is their story.

The surviving women are now advanced in years. Most of the victims, around 1300 women, have passed on, some only in recent weeks. To their families and the families of all deceased victims of symphysiotomy we extend our sympathy and solidarity. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanamacha.

We owe it to them, the deceased survivors of symphysiotomy, as much as to the estimated 200 living survivors, to act now as legislators in this Oireachtas to support them, as we are empowered to do, by opening the way to truth and to justice.

The Bill before us is necessary because the bar created by the Statute of Limitations sets a time limit of two years in initiating actions in personal injury cases. While in other jurisdictions judges retain inherent jurisdiction to allow cases to proceed where justice demands, Irish legislation provides no discretion whatsoever to the courts in determining whether cases may advance.

The State's refusal to deal with this abuse has left survivors with no option but to seek redress through the courts, although it has taken them several decades or more to amass sufficient knowledge to do so. A small number have never sought legal advice. Lifting the statute bar - unanimously recommended by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice in June 2012 - would obviate procedural battles and ensure unfettered access for all to the courts. Judges here have no discretion in relation to the statute bar, as they do in other common law jurisdictions.

The overwhelming majority of those subjected to symphysiotomy or pubiotomy were young women having their first child and whose knowledge of childbirth was extremely limited.

Many did not realise that the injuries they suffered were other than the normal effects of childbirth. Nor did they understand, for many years, and in most cases decades later, that these horrendous consequences were the result of childbirth operations that had been performed on them without their knowledge or consent.

These were, in effect, clandestine operations, which were concealed from them by sections of the medical profession.

As a consequence of this lack of knowledge, some survivors have never initiated proceedings, nor even sought professional advice, while others only did so, in very many cases, decades after the wrongful acts to which they were subjected were committed.

The Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2013 will allow those women currently excluded from taking legal action, to do so if that is their choice.

The Bill is based on the precedent of the Statute of Limitations Act 2000, which lifted the Statute of Limitations for sexual abuse victims of residential institutions. The wording of the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2013 mirrors the wording of the 2000 Act section by section.

The Bill does not establish any new cause of action - rather, it lifts the limitation period for bringing proceedings in respect of existing wrongs. Over 75% of these wrongs were committed in private hospitals who were insured at that time and who are liable for those injuries.

This outstanding issue of truth and justice for women who were mutilated in the Irish hospital system is just as grave as the scandal of institutional child sexual abuse or the ordeal of women in Magdalene laundries. In all of those cases the injuries and wrongs done to the women and children concerned was compounded by concealment, lies, denials, decades of silence from the State and then inaction or long delayed action or inadequate action by the State when the reality was exposed.

What was, in effect, a conspiracy of powerful and unaccountable men in the medical profession made the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy possible in Irish hospitals, with no protection for the women concerned from the health system or from any other arm of Government. They were simply abandoned to their fate.
Let us not compound these crimes– for crimes they were – by further neglect in this Dáil.

We must act now as legislators first, not Government or Opposition or political parties, but as law-makers who have a duty to represent these women and a duty to ensure that they have a clear path to justice and truth.
This is a test of our political system’s ability to act on behalf of the people in acknowledging wrongs and putting them right.

I appeal once again to each and every Dáil Deputy to support this Bill.

If passed at Second Stage the Bill can then go to Committee and the Government can amend it, if amendment is required, providing, at last, a way forward for these women.

I appeal to the Government to facilitate the passage of the Bill’s Second Stage by not dividing the Dáil in a vote tomorrow night.

It is the least that we can do in response to the surviving women’s appeal.

It is the least that we can do in memory of all the deceased victims of this barbaric act.

Let us together show, and proudly, that politics and politicians do care and can and sometimes do act in harmony in the interests of truth and justice.

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