On the 25th November 2013 The Minister for Health Dr. James Reilly announced the appointment of Judge Yvonne Murphy to examine the feasibility of a compensation scheme for women who underwent a symphysiotomy, a controversial childbirth procedure.

Of the estimated 1,500 women who underwent the procedure between the 1940s and 1980s, it is estimated that up to 300 survivors remain.

Dr James Reilly stated that Judge Murphy’s remit is to examine how a compensation scheme could be structured. He confirmed that Judge Murphy has been asked to draw up a series of recommendations by February 2014 to “assist in finding closure” for women affected by the operation. He also indicated that the Government has agreed to contribute to an ex gratia scheme, if such a scheme is recommended.

Minister Reilly previously indicated that he envisaged a scenario where the government would allow survivors of the procedure to seek compensation either through the courts or in a separate redress scheme by an appointed Judge and that the Government would not oppose a cross-party Private Members’ Bill which would lift the statute of limitations for the women affected.

However he then announced a U-turn on the Government’s plans to pass legislation which would allow women affected by the procedure to seek legal redress, on the basis of legal advice now obtained by the Government, which indicated that such a move could result in legal challenges by insurance firms on the basis that the State had “moved the goalposts” over cover.

Reaction to the Minister’s recent announcement has been mixed.

At a recent public meeting in Cork, Survivors of Symphysiotomy (‘SoS’), chairwoman Marie O’Connor said its members were “appalled” at the Government U-turn on the Private Members Bill. Ms. O’Connor accused the Government of continuing to cling to the “false narrative” that symphysiotomy procedures, which involved sawing through the pelvic bone to widen the birth canal, was an acceptable medical procedure. She stated that “taken in tandem with the ‘redress’ scheme recently announced, this appears to be a pincer movement aimed at preventing survivors from accessing truth and justice,”.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the announcement did not offer truth or justice, and he criticised plans to keep the statute of limitations in place. Deputy O’ Caoláin stated that “The type of scheme outlined in the terms of reference offers the women no prospect of adequate compensation for what was so barbarically done to them nor the choice to pursue their rights in the courts.”

Trish Hynes is a solicitor with the firm FitzGerald Solicitors specialising in medical negligence. FitzGerald Solicitors are located at 6 Lapps Quay, Cork.


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