Draft Report on Symphysiotomy in Ireland from 1944 to 1984
Please note: This report is disputed by SOS Ireland and is provided as an aide to researchers and those studying the subject. The report is in no way endorsed by Survivors of Symphysiotomy. For a commentary on SOS’s position please click here
About the Draft Report
This document is a shorter version of the Draft Report on Symphysiotomy in Ireland
1944 to 1984. (Symphysiotomy is pronounced sim-fizzy-ot-o-me).
The draft report is the first stage of a two-stage process. This first stage sets out the
history of the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland from 1944 to 1984. The second
stage will include a consultation process on the draft report.
Symphysiotomy is an operation to widen a woman’s pelvis during difficult childbirth.
It was usually carried out under local anaesthetic and involved cutting fibres around
the pelvic bones to separate the bones and allow the baby to pass through.
Symphysiotomy was used in cases where caesarean sections were not suitable, for
example, if the mother was too ill or there wasn’t enough time.
Concerns about symphysiotomy and its long-term effects on women who underwent
the operation emerged in 2001. Since then, there have been calls for an inquiry into
the practice. Several Ministers for Health ruled out a full-scale inquiry. Finally,
Minister for Health Mary Harney agreed to commission a report on the practice.
This report is the third attempt to examine the practice of symphysiotomy in 20th
century Ireland. Unfortunately, the first two attempts fell through for various reasons.
Now, it is hoped that this report will serve the women who underwent this procedure
and who deserve an investigation that establishes the facts and acknowledges the
anxiety and pain that they have carried for many years.
The report focuses on the period 1944 to 1984 although symphysiotomy was used
mostly from the late 1940s right through to the 1960s. After that time, caesarean
sections were used more in difficult births.
Information was gathered from maternity hospitals all over the country but the most
complete information comes from the Dublin area. Also, information from Our Lady
of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda was examined because there is particular concern
that the practice of symphysiotomy continued there for longer than at any other
hospital. The Dublin hospitals produced annual reports giving details about the use
of symphysiotomy. Information for other parts of the country is scarce as the level of
record-keeping and reporting varied from one region to another.
What this report covers (Terms of Reference)
The following are the Terms of Reference agreed with the Department of Health and
Children for this report:
Report on the rates of symphysiotomy and maternal mortality (the number of
women who died in childbirth) in Ireland from 1944 to 1984 by referring to
available information including annual reports and other reports.
Examine symphysiotomy rates against maternal mortality rates over the time
Examine international reviews of symphysiotomy practice and associated
rates in other countries and compare to Ireland.
Review any guidelines and protocols that applied to symphysiotomy in Ireland
during the time in question.
Write a report based on the findings, providing an accurate picture of the
extent of the use of symphysiotomy in Ireland and an examination of the Irish
experience compared to other countries.
Objectives added by the author
The practice of symphysiotomy is controversial and has left survivors of the
procedure with suspicions and anxieties. In Ireland, survivors are concerned about
the influence of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s opposition to
contraception and sterilisation meant that caesarean sections – which might limit the
number of children a woman might have – would not be in keeping with the Church’s
teachings. Therefore, in addition to the terms of reference agreed with the
Department of Health and Children, the author of this report tried to review
information that might help to answer two key questions:
Why was symphysiotomy used in Ireland at a time when other countries had
stopped using it?
Was the decision to perform a symphysiotomy sometimes based on religious
beliefs rather than good clinical judgement where a caesarean section might
have been better for the mother?
How the report was done (Methodology)
Information for the report was gathered in the following ways:
Databases relating to maternal care in Britain, Spain, Germany, France and
Italy were accessed and searched. Also, worldwide information held by the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was
Requests for information were made to libraries and national records systems
in each of the countries named above.
Paper records in Ireland were checked, including Department of Health files in
the National Archives and annual reports of hospitals held in the National
All the Irish public maternity hospitals were asked to provide records of
statistics relating to symphysiotomy rates, if these existed.
Data from the Central Statistics Office on health and maternity care were
A literature review was completed using searches of the online medical
journals PubMed and Medline as well as hard copy searches of mid-20th
century medical journals held at University College Cork and the National
Limitations of available sources
Maternity hospitals were not required to produce annual reports in the 1940s, 1950s
or 1960s so no firm statistics are available.
Findings in relation to the Terms of Reference
Symphysiotomy rates, mortality rates and so on
This short version of the Draft Report gives a small sample of the findings. They
relate to the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, in 1952. You can read the detailed findings for
all the maternity hospitals in the full version of the report where much of the
information is laid out in tables.
Year of most symphysiotomies: 1952
Total number of deliveries: 5,874
Number of symphysiotomies: 7
Number of maternal deaths related to symphysiotomies: 0
Number of infant deaths related to symphysiotomies: 0
Number of caesarean sections: 201
Number of maternal deaths related to caesarean sections: 1
Number of infant deaths related to caesarean sections: 34
The tables in the full version of the report present findings for the Rotunda Hospital,
the National Maternity Hospital (Holles Street), the Coombe Hospital and Our Lady
of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The detail is greater in the full report and the tables
cover about 15-20 years. There is some additional information from these records in
the report. For example, in some cases information about the health of the woman
after a symphysiotomy was performed or the reason why it was performed is
Examine international reviews of the practice of symphysiotomy
The practice of symphysiotomy was at its peak in Ireland at a time when the practice
had declined in the rest of Europe but before it became common in the developing
Guidelines and protocols regarding symphysiotomy in Ireland
There were no regulations or protocols for symphysiotomy in mid-20th century
Ireland. Medical professionals discussed symphysiotomy and their opinions and
experience guided the practice. This lack of regulation meant that some women
underwent symphysiotomy without giving their consent and some women were
unaware that a symphysiotomy had been performed on them.
Summary of findings
Symphysiotomy, which had been practised in the early 20th century, was reintroduced
into certain Irish hospitals in the 1940s to help women who had
difficulty giving birth due to narrow or obstructed birth passages. It was
considered to be the most suitable thing to do in order to obey the laws of the
time. The law between 1944 and 1984 was very much influenced by the
teachings of the Catholic Church which meant that contraception and
sterilisation to prevent pregnancy were illegal and unacceptable.
Symphysiotomy was favoured over caesarean sections as, in the 1940s and
1950s, the safety of repeat caesarean sections was unproven.
Symphysiotomy was used mostly in emergencies when labour became
difficult and the mother couldn’t deliver her baby safely without help. It was
considered to be an appropriate procedure in these circumstances.
Symphysiotomy was never proposed as an alternative to caesarean section.
The rates of caesarean sections rose steadily in the 1950s and 1960s.
Symphysiotomy was a safer way of dealing with difficult births than caesarean
section in the 1940s and 1950s. Fewer mothers and babies died as a result of
symphysiotomy compared to the death rates associated with caesarean
sections. Overall, symphysiotomy was not used very often. Between 1950 and
1955 for example, it was used on average in one in every 200 deliveries
(0.47%) in the Coombe and National Maternity Hospital (Holles Street).
Between 1960 and 1965, it was used in one in a 100 deliveries (0.98%) at Our
Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda.
The use of symphysiotomy was continually reviewed and discussed by the
medical profession and the practice was used less often as women’s general
health improved and the safety rates of caesarean sections improved.
Symphysiotomy was wrongly used in a number of cases. There were cases of
‘symphysiotomy on the way out’. This means that the procedure was
performed after the woman had already given birth by caesarean section.
Before the woman’s abdomen was closed after the section, the
symphysiotomy was performed to increase the chances of the woman having
a normal delivery on her next baby.
Symphysiotomy was used at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda until
1984 which is not in keeping with the rest of the country. The practice
declined everywhere else from the mid-1960s.
Recommendations will be made when the second stage of the two-stage process –
the consultation stage – is completed.
Overview p. 2
Note on Focus of the Draft Report p. 2
Methodology p. 3
Limitations of Available Sources p. 4
Terms of Reference p. 8
Additional Objectives p. 9
Definition of Symphysiotomy p. 14
Religion and Irish Obstetrics p. 16
Rates of Symphysiotomy and CS in the Dublin Hospitals p. 21
Guidelines and Protocols for Symphysiotomy in Ireland p. 24
Alternatives to Symphysiotomy or CS for Disproportion p. 32
Maternal Health and Symphysiotomy p. 32
Context for Reintroduction of Symphysiotomy p. 38
Relative risks of Symphysiotomy and Caesarean Section p. 40
Long-term Effects of Symphysiotomy p. 44
The Decline in Symphysiotomy p. 49
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda p. 52
Symphysiotomy ‘On the Way Out’ p. 57
Issues of Consent p. 65
Findings and Recommendations p. 70
Select Bibliography of Secondary Medical Literature p. 72
Dr Oonagh Walsh,
University College Cork
Draft Report on Symphysiotomy in Ireland, 1944-1984
This draft report is the first stage of a two-stage process aimed at fulfilling the
request of the previous Minister for Health and Children (Mary Harney) in relation to
the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland. This first phase is an independent
academic research report. The second phase will involve consultation with relevant
stakeholders to provide comment on the report. The final report will not be
concluded until this process has been completed. This draft report has been
compiled with reference to printed sources, and analysis of medical reports and
research, and this first stage has not involved interviews with individuals directly
involved in symphysiotomies (mothers, practitioners and midwives in particular). This
approach is central to the production of an independent report, compiled without
influence or input from vested interests. Once the independent baseline has been
established, the researcher will seek both feedback from the stakeholders, and
further input from those with direct experience in the procedure. From the
announcement of this project, the author had unsolicited contact from various
individuals with experience of the procedure, offering their perspectives. None of
these offers of assistance were followed up, in order to ensure that this report
remained free from influence from either proponents of the procedure, or opponents
of it. Now that the draft report is complete, the author will seek additional input in
order to ensure that the final report, which will be placed in the public domain,
reflects as accurately as possible the history of symphysiotomy in Ireland.
Note on Focus of the Draft Report:
The report focuses on the years 1944 to 1984, the period in which symphysiotomy
was employed in some Irish hospitals. The years of most significant use were from
the late 1940s to the 1960s, when the operation was largely superseded by Lower
Segment Caesarean Section as a response to obstructed labour. The draft report
draws heavily on the position in Dublin, and in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in
Drogheda, given the particular concerns expressed regarding practice there. These
hospitals produced periodic annual reports, with specific detail regarding
symphysiotomy and its uses. The national picture is far less clear.1 Most maternity
hospitals did not produce annual reports, and the survival of individual maternity
registers, and indeed patient medical charts varies from region to region. At this
stage it is important to identify the prevalence of the procedure from the 1940s to the
1980s on the basis of available figures. A figure of 1,500 symphysiotomies has been
suggested for this period 1944-19922. Preliminary figures from regional maternity
hospitals suggest the usage was a good deal lower than in the capital, and the
procedure does not appear to have been used at all in some centres. 1,500
symphysiotomies between 1944 and 1992 gives a rate of 0.05 as a percentage of
total deliveries, or a symphysiotomy rate of 0.03 per 100,000 births.3 Thus it was a
rare intervention in comparison with caesarean section, for example, which rose
steadily in the same period from a rate of just under 2% of deliveries in 1944 to over
4% nationally in 1984. This is not in any way to minimise the suffering of the women
who underwent the operation, but it does indicate its exceptionalism in Ireland as a
The study sets out to establish accurate rates of usage of symphysiotomy in Ireland
as a whole, and to compare its use in other European countries in the second half of
the twentieth century. Searches were undertaken of databases relating to maternal
care in Britain, Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, as well as OECD world-wide
material. Requests for information were also made to repositories and national
records systems in each of these countries. Printed primary sources in Ireland were
checked, including Department of Health files in the National Archives, and Annual
Reports in the National Library. All of the Irish public maternity hospitals were
1 Although individual hospitals have been helpful with regard to gathering statistics there are
significant problems. Not least of these is the fact that few hospitals compiled annual reports in the
mid-twentieth century, and recovering detail on specific operations requires hand searches of data on
operations undertaken, and the consultation of case notes, which is outside the terms of reference of
2 Marie O’Connor, Bodily Harm: Symphysiotomy and Pubiotomy in Ireland, 1944-92, ‘Executive
summary’, p. 12.
3 There were 2,527,896 births in the Republic of Ireland between 1944 and 1992 inclusive. Central
Statistics Office, Vital Statistics, Births by State, Year and Statistic, 1944-1992.
contacted to determine the availability of statistics relating to rates of the procedure.4
The Central Statistics Data on Health and on maternity care was examined. A
comprehensive secondary literature review was undertaken using searches of
PubMed and Medline, as well as hard copy searches of mid-twentieth century
medical journals held at University College Cork and the National Library, Dublin.
Limitations of Available Sources:
In Ireland and abroad it has proved very difficult to secure accurate figures regarding
the use of symphysiotomy. From the early twentieth century, when the technique
was adapted by Zarate to prevent the complete division of the pubic symphysis, the
procedure was employed throughout Europe, albeit in small numbers relative to
overall deliveries. However, as maternity hospitals were not required to produce
annual reports, evidence of usage is often anecdotal, and no firm statistics are
available. There has never been a randomised trial of symphysiotomy (one of the
standards for the evaluation of a medical procedure) in any country, although there is
a substantial body of medical literature on its use in specific hospitals and regions
worldwide (see bibliography). Britain was originally chosen as a comparator in this
study, and searches of the National Health Service Health and Social Care
Information Centre database, and the British Department of Health Hospital Episode
Statistics were undertaken. No results for symphysiotomy were found,5 although the
procedure was in fact employed sporadically throughout the UK after 1945,6 and
periodic discussions took place in the medical journals regarding a possible revival of
the procedure in the face of a rising caesarean section rate.7 Staff in the NHS
records departments also undertook searches, without success. The material
compiled by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London is too
4 Cork University Maternity Hospital; Kerry General Hospital, Tralee; South Tipperary General
Hospital; St Luke’s General Hospital Kilkenny; Waterford Regional Hospital; Wexford General
Hospital; Galway University Hospitals; Letterkenny General Hospital; Mayo General Hospital,
Castlebar; Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe; Sligo General Hospital; Mid Western Regional Maternity
Hospital Limerick; Cavan/Monaghan Hospital Group ; Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar and
Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise.
5 In common with other European countries, including Ireland, Britain’s searchable statistics cover the
relatively recent past. The Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) begin in 1989, and do not cover all
6 Statements by British obstetricians in the Reports of the Dublin maternity hospitals confirm that the
operation was occasionally performed in Britain in the late 1940s, but it is impossible to determine the
extent of its use without hand-searches of archival material, where it survives.
7 Donald A.M. Gebbie, ‘Vacuum Extraction and Symphysiotomy’ in the British Medical Journal
(February 4, 1967), Vol. 1, p. 301.
recent to include symphysiotomy, and searches of their historic statistics have shown
no mention of the procedure.8 However, a 2003 article in the British Journal of
Obstetrics and Gynaecology describes three recent British cases, and argues for the
use of the procedure in certain carefully selected deliveries.9 As there is a strong
connection between the use of symphysiotomy and an acceptance of Catholic
precepts regarding contraception and sterilisation, data from Spain and Southern
Germany was examined for rates. There are no available figures for use in the
second half of the twentieth century in the health statistics of the Instituto Nacional
de Estadística, although the procedure was the subject of an article in Spain,
published in 1955, which described its use in 27 deliveries.10 It appears to have been
used in Spain as late as 1953, when an article describing its use in emergency
breech deliveries in 259 cases (between 1927 and 1953) was published.11
Symphysiotomy was employed in deliveries in the predominantly Catholic Southern
Germany in the first half of the century, but there are no available statistics for its use
after 1945 in the Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland, or in the databases available
through the German Federal Health Monitoring System. Searches by federal health
staff in Germany also failed to establish rates.12 Although international comparative
statistics relating to maternal and infant mortality and morbidity are available from
1960 through the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development
Statistical Extracts, there are no figures for symphysiotomy.13 The key databases for
France, including those of the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED)
and the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) were
searched, and although some historic data on maternity care is available, there is no
8 Statistics of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, on labour and delivery, and
maternal and perinatal mortality.
9 Wykes, C.B., Johnston, T.A., Paterson-Brown, S. and Johanson, R.B. 2003. ‘Symphysiotomy: a
lifesaving procedure’ in British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology: An International Journal of
Obstetrics & Gynaecology, No. 110, pp. 219–221.
10 E.L. García-Triviño, La sinfisiotomı´a y su posicion en la actual obstetrician, Acta Ginecol 1955, Vol.
6, pp. 143– 149, cited in Kenneth Bjorklund, ‘Minimally invasive surgery for obstructed labour: a
review of symphysiotomy during the twentieth century (including 5000 cases)’ in British Journal of
Obstetrics and Gynaecology, March 2002, Vol. 109, pp. 236–248.
11 S. Dexus & N. Salarich, ‘Supplementary symphysiotomy of recourse and in emergencies in fetal
extraction by natural route’ (De la sinfisiotomaa complementaria de recurso o de emergencia en el
curso de la extraccion fetal por las vaas naturales) in Rev Esp Obstet Ginecol 1954;13:358– 366,
cited in Bjorklund.
12 In common with most European states, Germany is retrospectively compiling health data. However,
the searchable material is too recent for this study. Staff conducted searches of historic health data
and found no results.
13 OECD Statistics datasets on maternal and infant mortality, and morbidity, 1960-2010.
mention of symphysiotomy. The procedure was used in France, but the available
material relates primarily to the first half of the twentieth century.14 Thus
symphysiotomy does not appear in the accessible data for western Europe, despite
its limited use in Spain, nor does it feature in European medical research literature,
despite its occasional use in mid-century.15
There is a good deal of discussion as to the potential role of symphysiotomy in
reducing the rising caesarean section rate in the developed world. One obstetrician
has used a small number of symphysiotomies (6) in Canada to deal with emergency
deliveries in which caesarean was refused, or inappropriate, and his interventions
are provoking a reappraisal, and discussion of, a possible reintroduction of the
procedure in Western obstetrics.16
Rates in Ireland:
Despite the use of symphysiotomy in several Irish hospitals, it does not feature in the
historic vital statistics published by the Central Statistics Office, and there is no
relevant data at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI). Symphysiotomy
pre-dates the modern Hospital Inpatient Examination (HIPE) database, and checks
by staff in all of the maternity hospitals reveal no figures on the procedure since its
commencement. Annual reports and maternity registers were collated for certain
hospitals over this time period and these, where available, provide the data on rates
for this draft report. Although the Dublin maternity hospitals and Our Lady of Lourdes
Hospital provide figures for the procedure in their published annual reports, the other
hospitals do not, and securing precise detail on the procedure will require hand
searches of maternity patient medical charts: this requires patient permission, and is
outside the terms of reference of this draft report, which is to look at published
reports. The survival rates of primary maternity records in individual hospitals varies
widely. In some hospitals, only birth registers survive, in others, there are complete
patient medical charts.
14 M. Dumont, ‘The Long and Difficult Birth of Symphysiotomy, or, From Severin Pineau to Jean-Rene
Sigault’ in Journal de Gynécologie, Obstétrique et Biologie de la Reproduction (Paris) 1989; No. 18,
Vol 1, pp. 11-21.
15 Establishing accurate figures for usage in western Europe will require hand-searches of individual
maternity hospital registers.
16 S. Menticoglou, ‘Is there a Role for Symphysiotomy in Developed Countries?’ in Journal of
Obstetrics and Gynaecology, May 2009, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 272-277
The compilation of rates from the Irish public maternity hospitals has been
complicated by the merger of several hospitals in recent years. This has resulted in
original records being placed in storage, access to which is dependent upon patient
permission. The use of the procedure varied considerably across the country, with
the largest numbers in Dublin, Drogheda and Cork:
Letterkenny General Hospital: Search of records confirmed no symphysiotomies.
Sligo General Hospital: Search of records confirmed no symphysiotomies.
Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe: Fewer than 5 confirmed symphysiotomies.
Galway University Hospital: Search of records confirmed no symphysiotomies.
Mid-Western Regional Maternity Hospital, Limerick: Fewer than 5 confirmed
Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar: Search of records confirmed no
Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise: Search of records confirmed no
Waterford Regional Hospital (Airmount Hospital): Fewer than 5 symphysiotomies (to
Rotunda Hospital Dublin: 24 confirmed symphysiotomies.
National Maternity Hospital Dublin: 281 symphysiotomies (to be confirmed; likely to
be slightly higher).
Coombe Hospital Dublin: 242 symphysiotomies (to be confirmed).
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital: 378 confirmed symphysiotomies.17
Louth County Hospital: search of records confirmed no symphysiotomies.
Cork University Maternity Hospital (created from the merger of the Bon Secours, St
Finbarr’s and Erinville Maternity Hospitals): 51 confirmed symphysiotomies.
17 For the period 1944-1984. The returns in the table for Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on p. 48 are
based on the published reports, which cover the period 1958-1984.
Terms of Reference:
The following are the Terms of Reference agreed with the Department of Health for
Document the rates of symphysiotomy and maternal mortality in Ireland from 1940 to
date by reference to available data (including annual reports and other reports)
Assess symphysiotomy rates against maternal mortality rates over the period
Critically appraise international reviews of symphysiotomy practice and
associated rates in a number of comparable countries in the world and in
Review any guidelines and protocols that applied in Ireland on
symphysiotomy over the time period
Write a report based on the findings of the above analysis providing an
accurate picture of the extent of use of symphysiotomy in Ireland, and an
examination of the Irish experience relative to other countries.
Assess symphysiotomy rates against maternal mortality rates over the period:
See pp. 19-23; 30-32; 37, and passim.
Critically appraise international reviews of symphysiotomy practice and
associated rates in a number of comparable countries in the world and in
European reviews of symphysiotomy relate principally to the early twentieth century,
when the procedure was little used in Ireland. When symphysiotomy was most
extensively used in Ireland, in the 1950s, it was rare in Europe, and in the developing
world. It began to be employed in the developing world more extensively from the
late 1960s and the 1970s onwards. Thus Ireland has a unique usage profile, with the
procedure at its peak in the 1950s when it was no longer used in western Europe,
but before it became a more common procedure in the developing world in the
1960s and ’70s. The critical appraisal of the procedure in this report is based upon
three bodies of work: 1. Medical evaluations of the procedure from early twentieth
century Europe; 2. Assessments of the usage and outcomes in mid-twentieth century
Ireland, in the specific context of Irish medical, religious, legal and social
circumstances, and 3. The most recent medical literature on the procedure, which
comes for the most part from experiences in the developing world, where caesarean
sections are often not available or are rejected by patients.
A Cochrane Review of symphysiotomy was published in 2010.18 It noted that there
has never been a randomised trial of symphysiotomy, and that results from the
procedure are based upon a substantial body of observational evidence. It
concluded that the procedure has a potentially life-saving role to play in the
developing world, and with proper training and aftercare, offers a clinically
acceptable response to obstructed labour in environments where caesarean section
is unavailable or unacceptable. The high mortality and morbidity rate associated with
childbirth in the developing world, where over 530,000 women die in childbirth each
year, an estimated 50,000 because of obstructed labour, has intensified the
discussion over the potential of the procedure.
Review any guidelines and protocols that applied in Ireland on symphysiotomy
over the time period:
There were no guidelines or protocols in Ireland on symphysiotomy in the mid-
twentieth century (see p. 24 onwards).
Additional Objectives, added by the author:
The practice of symphysiotomy is controversial. Throughout the twentieth century, it
was a procedure that provoked intense discussion in the medical profession, and the
reluctance of many obstetricians to employ it in delivery stemmed from anxiety
regarding the long-term effects of interference with the mother’s skeletal structure.
As medical interventions became more sophisticated in the mid-twentieth century,
and maternal and foetal outcomes improved, symphysiotomy declined. Suspicions
18 ‘Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health
policy, and are internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care.
They investigate the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.’ J.G. Hofmeyr
& M.P. Shweni, ‘Symphysiotomy for feto-pelvic disproportion (Review)’ in The Cochrane Library 2010,
Issue 10, p. 2.
were therefore raised as to why the procedure was used in Ireland when it had
largely disappeared from other European countries. Although the Department of
Health commissioned a report within the terms of reference above, this author
increasingly felt that it needed to address the survivors’ central question: why was
symphysiotomy used in Ireland? Moreover, why was it used in their particular cases?
The second question cannot be answered without an examination of individual case
notes, which is not possible in terms of a general report, but the author felt it
imperative to engage with the use of the procedure in Ireland within its highly specific
social, religious, and political circumstances. Thus two additional objectives arise.
The first is to assess, on the basis of medical practice from the 1940s to the 1980s,
the suitability of the procedure in Ireland. It is not the purpose of this report to
evaluate symphysiotomy as a medical procedure per se. As will be seen, there is an
international unanimity of opinion amongst obstetricians and midwives as to the
value, and indeed the life-saving potential of symphysiotomy in specific clinical
situations.19 This opinion is offered in environments with high levels of infant and
maternal mortality20 and morbidity21, where caesarean sections may not be safe or
indeed even available, and where cases of neglected labour are relatively common.
These incidents arise most commonly in the developing world, and it is therefore
19 The practice has come under particular scrutiny in the last decade, for two principal reasons. The
first is the appalling rate of maternal mortality in the developing world, despite a series of targets for
reduction. Over half a million women die in childbirth annually, and it is estimated that between 8 and
10% are as a result of obstructed labour, a major indication for symphysiotomy. The second is a
growing concern regarding the rise in Caesarean Section in the western world, standing at over 30%
of all births in the United States, 26% in Ireland, and almost 25% in Britain. Symphysiotomy is now
being discussed in western medicine in the context of reducing the CS rate, especially in North
America. See E. Declercq, F. Menacker & M. MacDorman, ‘Maternal risk profiles and the primary
caesarean rate in the United States, 1991-2002’ in American Journal of Public Health 2006b, Vol. 96,
pp. 867-72; C. McCourt, J. Weaver, H. Statham, S. Beake, J. Gamble & D. K. Creedy, ‘Elective
caesarean section and decision making: A critical review of the literature’ in Birth 2007, vol. 34, pp.6579;
Healthy Baby Directory for the West of Ireland, Association for the Improvement of Maternity
Services in Ireland, 2011; J.P. Rooks, N.L. Weatherby, E.K. Ernst, S. Stapleton, D. Rosen & A.,
Rosenfield, ‘Outcomes of care in birth centers: The National Birth Center Study’ in New England
Journal of Medicine, 1989, Vol. 321, pp. 1804-11; F. Althabe & J.F. Belizan, ‘Caesarean section: The
paradox’ in The Lancet 2006, Vol. 368, pp. 1472-3; K.C. Johnson & B.A. Daviss, ‘Outcomes of
planned home births with certified professional midwives: Large prospective study in North America’
in British Medical Journal 2005, vol. 220, p. 1416; S.M. Taffel, P.J. Placek & T. Liss, ‘Trends in the
United States caesarean section rate and reasons for the 1980-85 rise’ in American Journal of
Public Health 1987, Vol. 77, pp. 955-9, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Maternal,
infant and child health. Healthy People 2010, 2nd ed. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, November 2000, pp. 16-30-31, and international citations throughout this report.
20The number of deaths per 100,000 (or, occasionally, 10,000) live births. Maternal mortality is one of
the standard measures of the quality of a health care system.
21 In this context, morbidity refers to the frequency of the appearance of complications following
symphysiotomy, as opposed to the prevalence of disease.
from those regions, and especially Africa, that the widest range of research has
come in recent years. This has had the effect of consolidating a suspicion amongst
observers that symphysiotomy is an inferior procedure, and has made an impartial
evaluation difficult. Few western practitioners have personal experience of its
application, or its effects. Symphysiotomy is included in the Managing Obstetric
Emergencies and Trauma – the MOET Course Manual,22 a core training text in
British obstetrics, and there is agreement regarding the necessity for its inclusion in
the training of European obstetricians and midwives for those emergencies where its
use is indicated. However, the application of symphysiotomy in the developed world
is rare, as caesarean section is routinely used before extreme difficulties arise: ‘Not
only are the indications for symphysiotomy rare in developed countries, but the
cases that might benefit from symphysiotomy – mainly obstructed after-coming-head
and failed instrumental delivery in a woman unfit for an urgent CS – are such dire
emergencies, that it is hardly a suitable opportunity to teach the procedure or even
for an obstetrician to maintain a rarely used skill.’23
The second additional objective is an evaluation of whether symphysiotomy was
used inappropriately in Ireland. It has been contended that the procedure was
employed in cases where a caesarean section would normally have been indicated,
and that as a result mothers were subject to a clinically inferior form of treatment.
Moreover, there exists a suspicion that the decision to perform a symphysiotomy
instead of a caesarean section was influenced by a Catholic commitment to
unrestricted pregnancy and childbirth, and that the obstetrical concern regarding the
dangers of repeat caesareans might lead to demands for sterilisation or
contraception, both anathema to practising Catholics in the period under review.
Women who underwent the procedure have emphasised the importance of
understanding why it was used in their cases, and if non-medical factors influenced
an obstetrician’s decision to perform symphysiotomy over caesarean section. Thus it
is important to determine, as far as possible from this historic distance, whether an
22 Charlotte Howell, Kate Grady and Charles Cox (eds), Managing Obstetric Emergencies and
Trauma – the MOET Course Manual Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 2007,
Section 4: ‘Obstetric Emergencies’.
23Douwe Arie Anne Verkuyl, ‘Think Globally, Act Locally: the case for symphysiotomy’ in PLoS
Medicine, March 2007, Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 401-406.
inappropriate decision was made for religious as opposed to clinical reasons.24 The
Hippocratic Oath requires that a physician ‘does no harm’: an inappropriate use of a
procedure for reasons other than clinical would violate this basic principle, and is
therefore an integral element in this draft report.
Concerns regarding symphysiotomy and the long-term effects of the procedure
emerged in 2001. Since then, there have been calls for an inquiry into the practice,
originally to Micheál Martin, then Mary Harney, and finally James Reilly, the current
Minister for Health. The former Ministers ruled out an inquiry, but sought to have a
report on the practice commissioned. This report represents the third such attempt to
evaluate the practice of symphysiotomy in twentieth-century Ireland. The first was to
have been undertaken by a Swedish obstetrician, who had already conducted a
comparative evaluation of the international incidence of symphysiotomy in the
twentieth century. Following considerable public discussion, and inaccurate and
unsubstantiated allegations of partiality, the obstetrician withdrew from the process.
The second proposed team of investigators (based in Northern Ireland, Scotland and
England) comprised an obstetrician, a clinical psychologist, and a team of
researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine: this team also withdrew as
a result of disagreements over the extent and scope of the project. It is certainly a
matter of regret that neither of the original reviews proceeded. Either would have
provided the data required to assess Ireland’s use of symphysiotomy, and advanced
the investigation by some years. The women who underwent this procedure are no
longer young, and deserve the satisfaction of an investigation that seeks to establish
facts, and acknowledge the anxiety and pain that they have carried for a good many
This topic is a difficult and often painful one, a fact underlined by the divisions
between elements of the survivors’ groups, which has resulted in two separate
organisations representing women who experienced symphysiotomy. This is not a
story of heroes and villains. It is a complex interaction of medical, socio-religious and
cultural factors that makes a definitive statement as to the appropriateness of the
24 The published annual reports from the Dublin maternity hospitals provide detailed summaries of
symphysiotomy cases in certain years, including obstetric histories, detail on the progress of labour,
and information on follow-up (when the patient returned for after-care) that gives clear indications of
the circumstances under which the procedure was used. Similarly, summary case notes for
caesarean section patients are also provided, allowing for a comparison of cases. See Clinical
Reports of the Dublin Maternity Hospitals in Irish Journal of Medical Science 1940-1968.
procedure in the mid-twentieth century no easy matter. Historical distance should not
be used as a means of excusing unacceptable behaviour: interventions must be
evaluated on an accepted standard of good practice at the time, and if a physician
knowingly imposes an inferior standard of care for ideological reasons he is guilty of
poor treatment, even if motivated by mistaken good intention. Equally, however,
historical context is vital to a proper evaluation of practice. Medical care advances
through trial and error, and it is only in the application of new techniques, some of
which will inevitably produce disappointing results, that a firm empirical basis for
adoption emerges. The extensive use of x-ray to diagnose pelvic disproportion, for
example, which occurs as part of the development of obstetric care in the last
century, and is an integral part of the symphysiotomy story, would be regarded with
great alarm by modern practitioners. But it was an application of a modern
technology done with the intention of improving maternity care, and abandoned
when a safer and more reliable means (ultrasound) was developed. Thus the
practice of symphysiotomy must be evaluated in terms of good obstetric standards
that prevailed from the 1940s to the 1980s. Medical history, including the history of
obstetrics, includes many instances of interventions that were initially heralded as
major advances, and relegated once the consequences were realised. Irving Loudon
recounts two extraordinary developments that attracted supporters in the United
States and Britain respectively:
Maternal mortality rates were also high when maximum surgical
interference in normal or potentially normal labours was
encouraged or advocated. A leading American obstetrician in the
1920s, Joseph Bolivar DeLee, wrote a paper entitled ‘The
prophylactic forceps operation’ in which he advocated that
procedures for ordinary deliveries be changed to include
anaesthetizing every patient in the second stage of labour,
delivering the baby with forceps, and manually removing the
placenta using the ‘shoehorn manoeuvre’. His advice was heeded
by many obstetricians and horrendous examples of iatrogenic25
mortality resulted. Another example, from Britain, was the
widespread use of chloroform and forceps by general practitioners
25 The result of intervention by a physician.
in uncomplicated deliveries between 1870 and the 1940s. This was
described by one observer as a tendency a ‘little short of murder’
and accounted for many unnecessary deaths.26
Definition of Symphysiotomy:
Symphysiotomy is an operation, usually carried out under local anaesthetic, to
enlarge the size of the mother’s pelvis and facilitate delivery in cases of relatively
minor obstruction or disproportion. Where major obstruction is present, caesarean
section is the appropriate procedure. It was believed that symphysiotomy resulted in
a permanent enlargement of the mother’s pelvis, although modern research has
questioned whether this is indeed the case.27
This ‘plain language’ summary describes the procedure:
Symphysiotomy is an operation to enlarge the capacity of the
mother’s pelvis by partially cutting the fibres joining the pubic
bones at the front of the pelvis. Usually, when the baby is too big
to pass through the pelvis, a caesarean section is performed. If
caesarean section is not available, or the mother is too ill for, or
refuses, caesarean section or if there is insufficient time to perform
caesarean section (for example when the baby’s body has been
born feet first, and the head is stuck), symphysiotomy may be
performed. Local anaesthetic solution is injected to numb the area,
then a small cut is made in the skin with a scalpel, and most of the
fibres of the symphysis are cut. As the baby is born, the symphysis
separates just enough to allow the baby through. Large
observational studies have shown that symphysiotomy is
extremely safe with respect to life-threatening complications, but
rarely may result in pelvic instability. For this reason, and because
the operation is viewed as a ‘second-class’ operation, it is seldom
performed today. Health professionals fear censure should they
26 Irvine Loudon, ‘Maternal Mortality in the Past and its Relevance to the Developing World Today’ in
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Vol 72, No. 1, July 2000, p. 2425.
27J. Van Roosmalen, ‘Symphysiotomy as an alternative to caesarean section’ in International Journal
of Gyneacology and Obstetrics No. 25, 1987, pp 451-458. See the same author’s 1990 article on
symphysiotomy in ‘Safe Motherhood: caesarean section or symphysiotomy?’ in American Journal of
Obstetrics and Gynaecology July 1990, Vol 1, Part 1, No. 163, pp. 1-4.
perform a symphysiotomy which leads to complications.
Proponents argue that many deaths of mothers and babies from
obstructed labour in parts of the world without caesarean section
facilities could be prevented if symphysiotomy was used. 28
Although symphysiotomy is most often a medical intervention, performed to facilitate
delivery, it may also happen spontaneously during labour. An allied procedure which
severs the pubic bone lateral to the symphsis is known as pubiotomy and is rarely
used. There is reference to a similar practice in Ireland in the fifteenth century29 that
appears to have been used prophylactically30:
The earliest successful symphysiotomy was performed in Paris in 1777 on a woman
with dwarfism who had lost her three previous children. Although mother and child
survived the operation, the mother suffered significant after-effects, including severe
difficulty in walking, and urinary incontinence. The operation was utilised throughout
the nineteenth century in relatively small numbers, but there was a revival of interest
in the procedure at the end of the century as improved aseptic techniques greatly
improved the maternal mortality and morbidity rate. The technique was modified in
the 1920s by an Argentinian obstetrician named Enrique Zarate so that the symphsis
fibres were partially and not completely severed: this was to reduce the chance of
long-term pelvic instability, as the pelvic girdle did not divide in the manner of earlier
symphysiotomies.31 Local anaesthetic now also replaced general anaesthetic for the
procedure, and this is the technique that was used in Ireland in the mid-twentieth
century. The operation is now associated exclusively with childbirth, but has
occasionally been used on men.32 During the Vietnam War, an American surgeon
used symphysiotomy to control massive haemorrhage and facilitate reconstruction
28 G. Justus Hofmeyr and P. Mike Shweni, ‘Symphysiotomy for feto-pelvic disproportion (Review)’ in
The Cochrane Library 2010, Issue 10, p. 2.
29 ‘The wild Irish women do break the pubic bones of the female infant, so soon as it is borne. And I
have heard some wandering Irish women affirm the same to be true, and that they have ways to keep
these bones from uniting. It is for certain that they be easily and soon delivered. And I have observed
that many wanderers of that nation have a waddling and lamish gesture in their going.’ Percival
Willughby, Observations in Midwifery (ca. 1672)
30 A medicine or treatment to prevent disease.
31 D. Maharaj and J. Moodley, ‘Symphysiotomy and Fetal Destructive Operations’ in Best Practice and
Research in Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 2002, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 117-131.
32 John N. Wettlaufer & John W. Weigel, Urology in the Vietnam War: Casualty Management and
Lessons Learned Washington: Borden Institute, 2005, chapter 7.
following deep tissue injury by high velocity weaponry.33 It was also utilised in
surgery for the removal of tumours of the pelvis,34 and more recently in the treatment
of urethral injuries in children.35
Religion and Irish Obstetrics:
Irish obstetrical practice was heavily influenced by, and constrained within, a widely
accepted religious framework. This influence was not merely ideological, but also
shaped legislation in order to ensure conformity to certain religious principles. The
dominance of the church in almost all areas of Irish life was also felt within medicine,
and in the period of this study the pernicious influence of the Catholic Archbishop of
Dublin, Charles John McQuaid, spread far beyond the capital. His interference to
their detriment in the broader realm of women’s general health reflected a
preoccupation with largely illusory battles regarding morals, ensuring that
malnourished and exhausted mothers produced children whom they could not afford
to feed, clean, or clothe. McQuaid, in common with the rest of the Church hierarchy,
did indeed believe that ‘the issue of maternity care was a religious one.’36 An
unyielding belief system that would not countenance artificial contraception or
sterilisation for the prevention of pregnancy also placed legal restrictions upon
medical practitioners, and put them into a very different position from their European
peers. Many found the position intolerable. The testimony of obstetricians, and the
memoirs of other practitioners, indicate how many medics struggled to provide the
care their patients needed, while constrained by a conservative medical and social
structure.37 It is within this context that the revival of symphysiotomy must be
33 Stuart M. Selikowitz, ‘The Symphysiotomy Approach to High Velocity Missile Trauma’ in Annals of
Surgical Oncology, Vol 178, No. 5, pp. 616-20.
34 T.M. Holder & L.F. Peltier, ‘Symphysiotomy for Exposure in Resection of Pelvic Tumors’ Surgery,
35 Basiri, A, Shadpour, P, Moradi, MR, Ahmandnia H, & Madaen, K., ‘Symphysiotomy: a viable
approach for delayed management of posterior urethral injuries in children’ in Journal of Urology, Nov.
2002; No. 168, Vol. 5, pp. 2166-2169.
36 Amongst the several disgraceful outcomes of McQuaid’s interference in family life was the loss of
free maternity care and meals offered by multi and non-denominational organisations such as the St
John’s Ambulance Brigade to Dublin mothers. Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Mother and Child: maternity and
child welfare in Dublin, 1922-60 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 107.
37 For discussion of the limits on medical practice in a variety of specialisms mid-century, and the
general state of the nation’s health, see for example Ivor Browne, Music and Madness (Cork: Cork
University Press, 2008); J.B. Lyons JB. A Pride of Professors; the lives of the professors of medicine
at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Dublin: A & A Farmar, 1999); Robert Collis, To Be a
Pilgrim (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975); James Deeny, To cure and to care: memoirs of a chief
considered: in which multiple births were the norm, artificial contraception and
sterilisation to prevent pregnancy were illegal as well as ethically unacceptable, and
repeat caesarean sections carried grave dangers. A procedure that appeared to offer
the possibility of safe repeat deliveries for a very specific group of mothers was
therefore actively explored.
It has been repeatedly claimed that symphysiotomy was promoted by Irish
obstetricians, Alexander Spain and Arthur Barry (respective Masters of the National
Maternity Hospital) in particular, for religious and not clinical reasons.38 The first
element of this claim is partly true. Spain and Barry were both 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.39 However, they
operated within an environment in which considerable restrictions were placed upon
medical practitioners. Whatever their personal inclinations or beliefs, doctors
practising in Ireland were confined by key legislative limits in relation to family
planning and advice. The Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 eliminated
published material that offered information on the avoidance of pregnancy by
banning any material that was deemed to ‘advocate the unnatural prevention of
contraception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage.’ Indeed, much of the
emphasis of the Act, and the evidence presented to the ‘Committee on Evil
Literature’ that shaped its parameters, concerned birth control and the prevention of
conception.40 The sale of artificial contraceptives were banned under the 1935
Criminal Law Amendment Act: any doctor offering such material, and even
information on it, was liable to prosecution.41
medical officer (Dun Laoghaire: Glendale Press, 1989); Noel Browne, Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill
and Macmillan, 1986).
38 Marie O’Connor, Bodily Harm (Dublin: Johnswood Press, 2011), p. 82 and passim.
39 Sterilisation and caesarean hysterectomies were undertaken in the Dublin hospitals, often in
response to haemorrhage after delivery. There was strong opposition to sterilisation for contraceptive
purposes on the part of Catholic obstetricians such as Spain, who described such intervention, even
at the request of the mother, as ‘mutilation’. Alexander Spain, ‘Symphysiotomy and Pubiotomy: An
Apologia based on the study of 41 cases’ in Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British
Empire, 1949, Vol. 56, pp. 576-85.
40 Although the Catholic church vigorously advanced the Act, the Church of Ireland took an active part
in shaping its provision through the Anglican Committee member. For a discussion of the records
relating to the Committee, see Tom Quinlan, ‘Ferreting Out Evil: the records of the Committee on Evil
Literature’ in Journal of the Irish Society of Archives, Autumn 1995, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 49-56.
41 Section 17 of the Act stated: ‘Any person who acts in contravention of the foregoing sub-section of
this section shall be guilty of an offence under this section and shall be liable on summary conviction
thereof to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for any
Regardless of the physical and psychological stress associated with repeated
pregnancy and birth, Irish family size was exceptionally large by European
standards, over twice that of England. There was moreover a unique reproductive
profile: marriage rates were relatively low, but fertility rates were very high, meaning
that large numbers of Irish men and women never married, but those that did had
very large families: ‘It is in connection with the structure of childbearing in this period,
rather than overall fertility rates, that Irish exceptionalism can again be
unambiguously asserted. In Ireland, the uniqueness of the structure of childbearing
lay in the degree to which marriages were few but families were large, a combination
which had been a feature of Irish reproductive patterns since the late nineteenth
century.’42 Any young woman starting a family in this period could conservatively
expect to bear five live children,43 without the benefit of pauses through
contraception. But this statistic provides only a partial picture of individual
reproductive profiles. Ireland was unique in the post-war western world in terms of
numbers of individual pregnancies, and in home deliveries. In the 1950s, medical
students from the UK attended the Dublin hospitals in order to experience both the
domiciliary delivery system44, which had disappeared in Britain when hospital
delivery became the norm under the National Health Service, and to treat the ‘Grand
Multipara’: a woman who has had six or more children. Hospital records provide
general detail on family size, and mothers on their eighth pregnancy were so
common that they did not excite particular comment. In addition to the live births,
women could furthermore expect to suffer miscarriage, stillbirth, and post-partum
difficulties including incontinence, uterine prolapse, diabetes insipidus, and perineal
term not exceeding six months or to both such fine and such imprisonment and, in any case to
forfeiture of any contraceptive in respect of which such offence was committed.’
42 Tony Fahy, ‘Trends in Irish Fertility Rates in Comparative Perspective’, in The Economic and Social
Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, July, 2001, p. 159.
43 ‘In 1946 Irish couples who had been married for thirty to thirty-four years (married 1912-16) had on
average 4.94 children.’ Mary Daly, The Slow Failure: population decline and independent Ireland,
1922-1973 (Wisconson: University of Wisconson Press, 2006), p. 122.
44 Deliveries in the home, as opposed to hospital.
45 Maternity hospitals spent a good deal of time addressing underlying pregnancy-associated
problems in mothers, and attempting to establish a basic level of health. It was widely acknowledged
that larger families contributed significantly to ill-health amongst mothers and children, as scant
resources were stretched ever further, and debilitated women gave birth in turn to malnourished
Many Irish women were indeed ‘slaves to fertility’ in this era. Although the
acceptance of strictures upon family size and family life may seem incomprehensible
from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, with modern open access to
contraception, the reality was that all agents operated in an environment of general
acceptance of a startling level of interference in private matters. It is necessary to
understand the depth and unquestioning acceptance of such strictures upon
personal autonomy, and the importance of religious observance in all aspects of Irish
life. It was only as recently as 1979 that the Family Planning Act was passed, and
even then contraception was legally limited to married couples, and only available on
prescription.46 In the 1940s, women who had problematic deliveries were a pressing
concern: where in Britain sterilisation or limited contraception47 were options in some
cases, there was no such choice in Ireland (even in Britain, contraception was legally
limited in the post-war years to married men and women, and only on prescription48).
It was the lack of options in the control of fertility that was one of the key factors
behind a return to symphysiotomy.
This is the explicit theme of successive ‘Transactions’ of the Royal Academy of
Medicine, the published accounts of discussions of the three Dublin maternity
hospital annual reports, and the subject of several separate publications by the
Dublin Masters. In the course of the discussions, the standards of obstetric care in
Ireland in relation to Britain were the source of frequent comment. Symphysiotomy
46 Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (London: Profile books, 2004), p. 666.
47 Although condoms were relatively available after 1918, it was not until 1961, and the introduction of
the pill, that a reliable form of artificial contraception was taken up in the UK in large numbers. Illegal
(or ‘criminal’) abortion was common in Britain until 1968, when abortion was legalised under the 1967
48 ‘In circulars issued by the [British] Ministry of Health the authorities have been advised that (1) they
have no general power to establish birth control clinics as such; (2) advice on contraceptive methods
should be given only to:
(a) Married women who, being expectant or nursing mothers, are attending welfare centres and
for whom further pregnancy would be detrimental to health; and
(b) Married women attending clinics for women suffering from gynaecological conditions for
whom pregnancy would be detrimental to health, either because of some gynaecological
condition or because of some other form of sickness, physical or mental, such as
tuberculosis, heart disease, diabetes, chronic nephritis, etc.’
The establishment of the NHS was regarded as key in reforming this patchy provision: ‘we
recommend that restrictions be removed and that the giving of advice on contraception to married
persons who want it should be accepted as a duty of the national health service…Some doctors would
also object, on religious or other grounds, to giving advice on contraception, but this is unlikely to be a
serious impediment to national policy if patients are given the right to seek advice, if they want it, from
other doctors within the National Health service.’ Royal Commission on Population Report, (London:
His Majesty’s Stationary Office, June 1949), p. 194.
was regularly raised as a specific difference in practice between the two states (see
comments below), and variations in other approaches were also noted. The visiting
British obstetricians observed that Irish maternity care in general was more
conservative, meaning that there was a policy of non-intervention as far as
possible49, and a desire to permit the mother to deliver naturally. Although
Caesarean Section rates were comparable with those in Britain, mothers were
permitted to labour for longer periods of time before surgery, and this attracted some
comment. Over the years of this study, prolonged labour was frequently mentioned,
and the respective Masters initiated a policy of earlier intervention as a result.
Symphysiotomy in Ireland has been associated with younger mothers,50 and this is
borne out by experience in the developing world, where symphysiotomies are
indicated in cases where very young and physically undeveloped women face
problems of pelvic disproportion in greater numbers than older mothers.
Symphysiotomy was a statistically exceptional intervention in Irish obstetrics. At the
height of its use in Dublin, from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s, when it went into
decline, it accounted for 0.34% of the total deliveries at the National Maternity
Hospital, and 0.4% at the Coombe.51 The caesarean section rate increased from
1.1% to 4.6% in the same period, and remained on a steady upward trajectory.52
From the outset, symphysiotomy was viewed as a means of coping with a very
specific cohort, and was never proposed as an alternative to caesarean section. The
circumstances under which the procedure was to be performed did not vary
significantly over the course of thirty years, despite optimistic predictions by both
Spain and Barry that it would find additional applications. The indications for
symphysiotomy both remained generally constant over the period under review, and
conformed to those recommendations outlined by recent literature, with one
important exception (see ‘symphysiotomy on the way out’ below). The tables below
compiled from the Dublin maternity hospital annual reports provide figures for the
49 This term includes assistance at all levels, including induction, forceps, vacuum, episiotomy,
symphysiotomy and caesarean section.
50 Jacqueline K. Morrisey, An Examination of the Relationship between the Catholic Church and the
Medical Profession in Ireland in the period 1922-1992, with particular emphasis on the Impact of this
Relationship in the Field of Reproductive Medicine (Unpublished PhD thesis, University College
Dublin, 2004), p. 188.
51 Calculated from the Annual Clinical Reports, 1945-1965 inclusive. The Rotunda has been excluded
as symphysiotomy was rarely used, and its inclusion would artificially lower the overall rate.
52 The national rate is now 26.2%, well above the target of 10-15% set by the World Health
Organisation. Perinatal Statistics Report (Dublin, 2009), p. 19.
rise and fall in the use of symphysiotomy, and selected comments from the Masters
as to the use and consequences of the procedure – see footnotes for critical
evaluations of individual cases, as well as indications of use in non-emergency
situations. A note on terms: the Dublin reports use a variety of terms to describe
non-emergency symphysiotomies, including ‘on the way out’, ‘in combination with
caesarean section’, ‘elective pre-labour symphysiotomy’ and ‘symphysiotomy at
section’. Their use is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each delivery,
and are cited in this report’s footnotes as they appeared in the original documents.
Please also note that the footnoted comments on individual deliveries are a selection
from a much larger number, chosen to illustrate the differing circumstances under
which symphysiotomy was used. The annual reports contain much additional
comment and information.
Rates of Symphysiotomy53 and Caesarean Section in the Dublin Hospitals:54
YEAR No. Of
as % of
1948 0 0 0 0 95 1.9 4 5 4,788
1949 0 0 0 0 113 1.9 1 4 5,740
1950 0 0 0 0 131 2.3 2 13 5,509
1951 1 0.01 0 0 135 2.3 3 24 5,718
1952 755 0.16 0 0 201 3.4 1 34 5,874
1953 356 0.07 0 0 152 2.8 0 6 5,286
195457 2 0.04 0 0 166 3.8 2 16 5,623
53 These tables are for the years of highest usage of the procedure: figures showing usage for all
years (checked where available against the maternity registers) will be included in the final report.
54 The annual reports were published by the three hospitals until 1968. These tables reflect the years
of highest usage of symphysiotomy in Dublin.
55 These symphysiotomies were performed ‘at Caesarean Section to facilitate vaginal delivery in
56 These three were ‘Symphysiotomy at Section’.
57 Prof. A.S. Duncan of Cardiff noted: ‘The pride of place given in the Rotunda Report to the Social
Service Department emphasises to us the ever-increasing realisation of the importance of socioeconomic
factors in the aetiology of obstetrical abnormalities’ p. 527. Commenting on the issue of
possible incontinence following symphysiotomy, he stated: ‘One cannot very well come to Dublin and
not comment on the operation of symphysiotomy. I am impressed, and convinced of its value in the
failed forceps type of case, but I must confess that I am still unhappy about the prophylactic operation
1955 258 0.03 0 0 167 2.9 0 10 5,731
1956 159 0.01 0 0 148 2.5 0 10 5,845
1957 1 0.01 0 0 211 3.9 2 25 5,366
1958 0 0 0 0 171 3.0 0 7 5,554
1959 0 0 0 0 189 3.8 2 6 6,120
1960 0 0 0 0 196 3.0 0 15 5,840
1961 1 0.01 0 0 224 4.1 2 18 5,356
1962 360 0.05 0 0 243 4.3 0 26 5,648
1963 3 0.05 061 0 270 4.7 2 15 5,727
1965 0 0 0 0 335 5.1 2 30 6,472
YEAR No. Of
as % of
1950 11 0.3 0 1 31 0.9 0 2 3,548
1951 16 0.4 0 1 82 2.2 0 12 3,666
or the symphysiotomy combined with Caesarean Section. The sequelae [long term ill consequences]
in your experienced hands certainly seem to be minimal. There has been considerable criticism in
relation to the incidence of subsequent stress incontinence of urine, but I think we must remember
that stress incontinence of minor degree is very common in women, and that this becomes more clear
if patients are asked specifically about the symptom. In this connection you may be interested in the
results of a questionnaire study which I recently carried out amongst young nulliparous [women who
have never given birth to a live infant] hospital nurses. Of 134 nurses who replied to the
questionnaire, 87 or nearly two-thirds stated that they had at one time or another experienced stress
incontinence. Of these, 17 had experienced it frequently, and 18 at times when the bladder was not
even full. In 58 the causative stress was as simple an action as laughing. If we consider that these
were young nulliparae I think that we must not criticise too strongly the minor degrees of incontinence
displayed for example by some of Dr. Feeney’s followed-up series.’p . 528.
58 Combined with Caesarean Section.
59 Combined with Caesarean Section.
60 Although the babies were safely delivered, the mothers suffered injury: ‘Two of the patients
however, have had considerable disability from stress incontinence, and this coupled with the rather
prolonged convalescence necessary following the operation make it difficult for me to accept it for use
in any but occasionally selected cases where a funnel-shaped pelvis leads to obstructed labour at the
plane of least pelvic dimensions.’ Annual Report, p. 33
61‘Case No. 59973 was disastrous due to extraction of the head from brim level immediately following
symphysiotomy. This sequence of events (symphysiotomy immediately followed by forceps) is
reported by experts on symphysiotomy to be the worst possible procedure and the one most likely to
be followed by severe stress incontinence. Caesarean section should have been performed in this
case, and the subsequent career of this patient has been quite disastrous.’ Annual Report, p. 35
1952 19 0.4 0 3 100 2.3 1 4,301
1953 25 0.7 0 1 115 3.0 1 6 3,749
1954 1962 0.5 0 2 116 3.0 0 9 3,860
1955 15 0.4 0 2 94 2.5 2 6 3,685
1956 32 1.0 0 4 89 2.8 1 8 3,187
1957 6 0.2 0 0 104 3.3 0 11 3,103
1958 8 0.3 0 0 134 4.6 0 10 2,883
1959 1363 0.4 0 0 124 4.0 1 13 3,072
196064 1765 0.5 0 1 131 3.9 0 17 3,387
196166 1267 0.3 0 0 96 2.8 1 4 3,420
196268 4 0.1 0 0 135 3.8 0 6 3,522
196369 5 0.1 0 1 140 4.1 1 7 3,401
1965 0 0 0 0 170 5.5 1 15 3,106
National Maternity Hospital:
YEAR No. Of
as % of
1950 20 0.4 0 5 58 1.3 1 20 4,555
1951 18 0.4 0 2 44 1.0 3 5 4,486
1952 28 0.5 0 5 67 1.2 5,715
1953 18 0.3 0 2 58 1.2 0 7 5,392
1954 33 0.6 0 4 53 1.0 0 9 5,298
1955 33 0.6 0 0 51 0.9 0 2 5,432
1956 21 0.4 0 2 93 1.8 1 7 5,093
1957 9 0.2 0 0 87 1.8 0 2 4,717
62 Two were combined with Caesarean Section.
63 Nine of these were ‘prophylactic’.
64 There were 24 vaginal deliveries after symphysiotomy this year.
65 Four of these were prophylactic.
66 20 had vaginal deliveries following symphysiotomy. ‘None of these women on careful questioning
showed any of the disabilities so commonly attributed to this operation. None of them had any
abnormality of gait or stress incontinence.’ p. 40
67 Of the 12 symphysiotomies, eight were in labour and four prophylactic
68 13 patients delivered vaginally following symphysiotomy.
69 16 patients delivered vaginally following symphysiotomy.
1958 6 0.1 0 0 88 1.8 0 5 4,752
19607071 16 0.3 0 0 100 1.8 0 9 5,492
196172 1273 0.2 0 1 140 2.5 2 15 5,500
196274 1975 0.3 0 0 133 2.4 1 9 5,607
196376 12 0.2 0 0 168 0 6
1965 5 0.09 0 1 211 3.7 1 18 5,747
The pattern of use of symphysiotomy in the Dublin public hospitals was therefore as
follows: the procedure was rarely used at the Rotunda, although the hospital was
unique in employing it most often after caesarean section, in anticipation of the next
obstructed pregnancy. This did not follow good clinical practice, in which
symphysiotomy was and is regarded as appropriate only during labour (see below).
Symphysiotomy was statistically a far safer procedure than caesarean section, with
no maternal deaths as opposed to an average of two annually with section, and a far
lower foetal mortality rate (although still a distressingly high one). The operation was
most prevalent in the early to mid 1950s, when it began to decline, and was relatively
rare in the 1960s. This pattern reflects the changes in maternal health and maternal
care in Ireland. The health of mothers improved steadily in the late 1940s and 1950s,
with a decline in women with contracted pelvis presenting for delivery. This reduced
the numbers of mothers regarded as suitable cases for symphysiotomy. From the
early 1950s, it also became clear that with improvements in health, and in surgical
technique (especially the widespread adoption of the Lower Segment Section in
caesarean section), that repeat caesarean section was safer than had previously
been thought, and numbers rose accordingly. This largely eliminated the need for
70 Six patients had a symphysiotomy this year as an elective procedure before the onset of labour:
Five delivered vaginally, one by caesarean section because of rupture of a previous section scar.
71 There were 28 vaginal deliveries following previous symphysiotomy this year, 24 spontaneous, 4
72 22 delivered vaginally after symphysiotomy, 19 spontaneous, three with forceps.
73 Three were elective pre-labour symphysiotomies; four were ‘on the way out’.
74 25 delivered vaginally after a previous symphysiotomy, 19 spontaneous, five forceps, one vacuum.
75 10 symphysiotomies in labour, six elective pre-labour, three ‘on way out’.
76 22 vaginal deliveries after symphysiotomy. ‘[There was]…no case of orthopaedic problems this
year, but one of severe incontinence.’
Guidelines and Protocols for Symphysiotomy in Ireland:
There were no guidelines or protocols for symphysiotomy in mid-twentieth century
Ireland. This was not unusual: protocols did not exist for many aspects of medical
care in the twentieth century as a whole, which evolved through practical application,
and were revised on the basis of discussion in professional forums such as those
reported in the ‘Transactions’ of the Dublin Hospitals (below), in the training of
students, and on the basis of published papers in medical journals. There was
however a general acceptance of the indications for symphysiotomy, which were
‘mild to moderate disproportion’: a greater degree indicated caesarean section.
When Arthur Barry proposed symphysiotomy as a response to obstructed labour, he
did so on the basis of recent results reported by obstetricians in Britain and
continental Europe, including the seminal work of Chassar Moir, the British
obstetrician with whom Barry was to vigorously debate in Dublin in 1951 (below).77
In the absence of formal guidelines, the appropriate use of symphysiotomy (or
indeed any obstetrical intervention) depended upon peer-review, and the audit of
practice. The Inquiry of Judge Maureen Harding Clark into peripartum hysterectomy
at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital provides a valuable context for this report, in
suggesting a model for investigation (albeit on a much more limited scale), as well as
analysis of the influence of religious belief on medical practice.78 It has an especial
significance with regard to the use of symphysiotomy at Lourdes, and the role of
audit in ensuring patient safety and maintaining clinical standards. Harding Clark
found that the major factors in permitting the extraordinarily high levels of caesarean
hysterectomies at Lourdes were an atmosphere in which the actions of obstetricians
were accepted unquestioningly by other staff, and ‘the prevailing insular atmosphere
of the unit which never questioned, reviewed or audited outcomes, [and] allowed
hysterectomies for perceived haemorrhage to continue at unacceptable rates
77 In Barry’s 1952 article ‘Symphysiotomy or Pubiotomy: Why? When? And How’, he depends heavily
upon Moir and Kerr’s 1949 work Operative Obstetrics, which indicated the appropriate use of
symphysiotomy. Moir’s disagreement with Barry was less the question of symphysiotomy’s
usefulness, and more the extent to which it was utilised in Dublin in comparison with the UK. Moir
argued for the use of contraception and caesarean section to regulate fertility, and criticised the
religious ideology that led to continual pregnancy. Barry also cited research published in Spanish
(Zarate ; Vautrin ; Bazan and Rossi Escala ; Salarich Tarrents ).
78 Judge Maureen Harding Clark, S.C., The Lourdes Hospital Inquiry: An Inquiry into Peripartum
Hyserectomy at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. (Dublin: The Stationary Office, January
throughout the last 10 years of Dr. Neary’s practice.’79 Another problem lay in the
lack of training in modern obstetric approaches at Lourdes, and a lack of awareness
regarding up-to-date approaches to problems such as post-operative haemorrhage
in caesarean section. However, the situation with regard to symphysiotomy is
somewhat different. In the period under review, there were no clinical guidelines for
symphysiotomy. This was a period of transition in obstetric care, when maternal
mortality was in decline, hospital deliveries were increasing, and medical intervention
in delivery more frequent. Good practice was in a process of evolution, and the role
of the published reports, and discussion of practice between hospitals, as well as by
invited observers, was crucial in shaping the delivery of maternity care.
Audit is an integral element in the maintenance of clinical standards, and an
essential safeguard against malpractice.80 In Ireland, in common with Britain in the
period under review, there was no formal system of audit of practice for
obstetricians. The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the Royal College
of Physicians of Ireland was founded in 1976, and acts as an advisory body for
professional training and practice. It does not have any formal power of audit or
independent investigation into obstetric practice. Prior to its establishment, the Royal
College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London fulfilled this role, and most
senior obstetricians in Ireland held Membership of the Royal College (MRCOG),
although this was not a prerequisite for practice. Membership was (and is) through
examination, and implies a high standard of expertise, as it is a postgraduate
qualification.81 Many Irish obstetricians attended training courses at the RCOG, and
the Royal College played a key role in approving Irish maternity hospitals as training
centres for Irish doctors. Representatives from the RCOG visited Irish maternity
hospitals and inspected facilities throughout the twentieth century; they then made
recommendations for improvement if necessary. Although both bodies received
annual reports from some of the Irish maternity hospitals from the 1940s, there is no
consistency in submission, and no obligation on individual centres to submit reports,
apart from the three Dublin public maternity hospitals. When the reports were sent to
79 Lourdes Hospital Inquiry, p. 249.
80 Richard A. Greene of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre in Cork has identified the
necessity for audit in obstetric care, and the difficulties associated with gathering the information
necessary to identify trends. Perinatal Epidemiology Centre, Annual Report 2007, p. 4.
81 The process is a two-part examination, with the second element part of the RGOG’s ‘advanced
training’. It is a lengthy and rigorous process. See Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
Tips for Trainees in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, February 2009.
the two institutions, there was no requirement to review them, compare practice
between hospitals, or note areas of concern.82 Thus although Irish obstetrics was
overseen by two professional bodies, there was no regulatory input from them, and
interventions in hospital practice occurred only for the purpose of evaluating facilities
for training.83 However, there was an annual review of practice at the Dublin
Hospitals that constituted a process of audit.
Indeed, the relationship between the ROCG and Irish obstetricians is best seen in
the Dublin maternity hospitals. In the period under review there was regular contact
between Dublin and London, with British obstetricians travelling annually to Ireland to
review and discuss developments in Irish maternity care. There were three public
maternity hospitals in Dublin: the Rotunda, the Coombe, and the National Maternity
Hospital at Holles Street. They are unique in operating under a system of
Mastership, first established at the Rotunda Hospital in the 1750s. The Master is
responsible for all aspects of care in the institution, and has been described as a
chief executive as much as a clinician. The seven-year term appointments both carry
a high responsibility, and offer an exceptional degree of authority. The Masters
traditionally shaped the delivery of care, and in an earlier period exercised an
unparalleled control over their hospitals. Practice therefore reflected the ethos of the
Master, and at the National Maternity Hospital in particular in the 1940s and ‘50s this
meant conformity to Catholic beliefs.84 Thus there was no use of sterilisation for
contraceptive purposes, and no advice on artificial methods of contraception.85 This
system prevailed for many years. Even in a period when the cultural context had
altered and the general population accepted artificial contraception, some few staff at
the Coombe were still reluctant to prescribe it themselves: however, they raised no
objections to colleagues doing so.86
82 Harding Clark identified this lack of a requirement to review as a significant failing in relation to
standards at Drogheda. passim
83 The system of inspection is detailed in Harding Clark, Inquiry.
84 It would not be accurate to describe the Rotunda as a ‘Protestant’ hospital, although it was
perceived to be largely independent of Catholic influence in the mid twentieth century. For the most
part, it followed the prevailing medical ethos in not offering contraceptive advice.
85 Both the Coombe and Holles Street began family planning clinics in the late 1950s, but offered
advice only on natural methods of avoiding pregnancy.
86‘I had no compunctions about prescribing the pill and one of my functions was prescribing it for
patients who came to me specifically for this purpose. I cannot recall that my aberrant intervention in
this matter caused any concern to my obstetrical colleagues. They never spoke to me about the
The three hospitals published annual reports, which provided detailed information on
maternity care. Although based on the reports published by the RCOG, and using
clinical standards set in Britain,87 the Irish reports were far more discursive and
detailed, going beyond the largely statistical model prevailing in the UK. The reports
were originally initiated in fact as a process of audit: ‘Medical Audit, initiated by
Master George Johnston in 1869, remained active through the debates on the
annual Clinical Reports of the Dublin maternity hospitals at the Royal Academy of
Medicine in Ireland, as maternal mortality declined through the late 1940s and
1950s.’88 The reports were published to 1968, providing a unique insight into
changing obstetric practice in Ireland.89 From the early 1940s until the practice
largely ceased in the l960s90, symphysiotomy was extensively discussed, both by the
British obstetricians who were invited to review the annual reports, and by the
Masters of the hospitals, and clinicians who attended the meetings. In sharp contrast
to the situation uncovered by the Harding Clark Inquiry into the Lourdes Hospital,
where obstetric practice was not assessed or overseen,91 symphysiotomy was
exhaustively debated, and a wide variety of opinion expressed as to its suitability and
efficacy. Thus the use of symphysiotomy in mid twentieth-century Ireland was a
widely discussed approach, robustly attacked and defended over the course of
The earliest discussions, and amongst the most intense, occurred in the early 1950s
when the procedure was reintroduced. The ‘Transactions’ for 1951 are particularly
important, as that year saw a detailed debate regarding the potential as well as
limitations of the operation, and a discussion of the conservative obstetrical
matter, nor did the master ever intervene despite his and his colleagues’ reluctance to prescribe the
pill.’Risteárd Mulcahy, Memoirs of a Medical Maverick Dublin: Liberties Press, 2010, pp. 102-3.
87 The reports applied the so-called RCOG standard as a measure for Irish results in areas such as
maternal and foetal mortality. The Rotunda also produced statistics under the ‘Rotunda Standard’
which differed from the RCOG standard, and was based upon the specific conditions prevailing in
Dublin – the respective Rotunda Masters believed that this gave a more accurate picture of Irish
88 Alan Browne, ‘Mastership in Action at the Rotunda, 1945-95’ in Alan Browne (ed) Masters,
Midwives and Ladies-in-Waiting: the Rotunda Hospital, 1745-1995 Dublin: A & A Farmar, 1995, p. 24.
89 There was no obligation on the part of maternity hospitals outside of the three Dublin Lying-in
institutions to compile reports. They were merely required to present statistics to the RCOG in the first
instance, and after 1976 to the IOG. These bodies were not required to review or respond to the
90 With the exception of Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda, where the practice continued, albeit in
diminishing numbers, until 1984.
91 The culture of deference to senior medical staff, and an unwillingness to question practice, allowed
the anomalous situation to continue at Lourdes. Harding Clark, passim.
environment in Dublin, explicitly linked to religious belief. Obstetricians quoted
biblical text at each other, and a robust attack and defence took pace, involving
comments from a large number of physicians. It is clear that at this stage the
potential of the operation was still being explored, especially in relation to ‘curing’
disproportion. This was a pressing problem in international obstetrics, known to
cause problems at delivery, but very difficult to diagnose with any certainty. Prof. C.
Scott Russell of Sheffield noted that ‘In the Industrial North of England where I have
worked for nearly five years, contraction of the pelvis is still quite common, and from
my experience I can say without hesitation that the clinical methods of assessing
disproportion, especially in the ante-natal period, are not precise enough in doubtful
and difficult cases.’92 He then discussed at length the differing approaches to cope
with disproportion, from methods of diagnoses (radiological pelvimetry and
cephalometry; early induction of labour before the baby reaches full size; trial labour,
caesarean section, and symphysiotomy: ‘Though I have performed it two or three
times with benefit, I have in recent years preferred the lower segment Caesarean
section’) through to results, which were mixed. Prof. Chassar Moir spoke next, and
focused specifically on the imperative for vaginal deliveries in Dublin, which he
viewed with some anxiety. From his perspective, it was unethical to approach
obstetrics with the intention of securing limitless pregnancies and deliveries, simply
because of religious belief. The debate was less about the virtues or otherwise of
symphysiotomy (‘Let me make my position quite clear. I believe there is a place for
symphysiotomy. I myself have used this operation in the past and am prepared to
use it again in the future.’), and more about an obstetrician’s role in protecting the
health of mothers and children, regardless of religious belief. Indeed, the discussion
produced a general unanimity regarding the positive potential of symphysiotomy in
cases of disproportion, but disagreement over what the visiting obstetricians saw as
a reckless commitment to successive pregnancies at all costs. There was an
explicitly expressed fear that Ireland’s prohibition of contraception and sterilisation to
limit family size would result in the operation being inappropriately used.
In the ‘Transactions’ in each subsequent year, symphysiotomy was specifically
discussed, until the numbers undertaken fell naturally in the late 1950s. Indeed, it is
the most extensively evaluated procedure in the professional debates, and also
92 p. 1023.
features in each of the individual hospital reports, with summary case studies,
outcomes (immediate and long-term), and detail on deliveries subsequent to
symphysiotomy. Despite the optimism expressed by Barry and Spain in particular,
the procedure never superseded caesarean section, which became more common
with each successive year. The role of the Transactions is vital in shaping obstetric
practice: it provided a forum not merely for discussion, and placed Irish practice
under external observation, but in the presentation of statistics and case studies of
procedures, it provided an empirical base from which evaluation could take place,
and that is where its real value lay. The recognition that LSS caesareans were safer
than originally thought, and that the circumstances of mothers had improved steadily,
came about because of the availability of hard data from the hospitals.
It has been alleged that symphysiotomy was chosen over caesarean section in
Ireland not for clinical but ideological reasons, and that CS was a safe procedure
from the 1940s. This was not the case. Ireland had a good record of successful
caesarean section delivery, although a higher maternal mortality rate than that in
Britain.93 From the mid 1940s, almost all sections were the Lower Uterine Segment
Section (LSS), a much safer operation than the so-called ‘Classical Section’ that
involved a midline longitudinal incision providing a larger space to deliver the baby,
but a higher mortality rate and greater long-term complications.94 But even the LSS
carried significant immediate as well as long-term health risks, which increased with
repeat sections.95 In 1948, J. K. Feeney, Master of the Coombe Hospital, published a
review of Caesarean Sections in Dublin in 1946, indicating that poor maternal health,
combined with multiple repeat sections as a result of high fertility, led to a
substantially increased mortality rate:
93 Maternal mortality following caesarean section was between 0.5-1.1% nationally in Britain, and 2%
94 The classical section was occasionally used in Dublin in specific emergency deliveries, including
nuchal cord (where the umbilical cord is around the baby’s neck), but was rare in the late 1950s and
95 One of the major complications of caesarean section was ‘adhesions’: fibrous bands of scar tissue
that form between internal organs and tissues, joining them together abnormally. They form
commonly after surgery, especially abdominal surgery, as a normal part of the healing process.
Repeat caesareans created a risk of large numbers of adhesions, which caused major problems in
recovery, and left many patients in a great deal of pain. The Rotunda noted cases throughout the
1950s where difficulties in closing the abdominal wound after caesarean delivery occurred because of
the number of adhesions.
One of the aims of the conscientious obstetrician is to keep his
Caesarian section rate as low as is compatible with intelligent and
conservative obstetrical practice. Whilst a very low rate is not
necessarily an indication of obstetrics of a high standard, it should be
constantly borne in mind that a Caesarian section is a major
abdominal operation accompanied by maternal mortality and
morbidity rates which are considerably higher than those of vaginal
delivery. It has been estimated that Caesarian section performed
under ideal conditions should carry with it a maternal mortality rate of
only 0.5% to 1%, but this figure has not yet been attained in the mass
obstetrics of hospital practice. Until all pregnant women receive the
full advantages of efficient antenatal care and social service, patients
suffering from serious disease and in poor condition will continue to
be admitted to our maternity hospitals. In addition to the risks of
operation, the remote chronic obstetrical invalidity associated with
repeat Caesarian sections is an important consideration in a
community in which birth control and sterilisation are not practiced.96
In fact, the combined maternal mortality rate in Dublin following section was 2%, a
figure that exceeded the prevailing rate in Britain. This varied from year to year, and
between hospitals, from a high of 4.2% in the Rotunda in 1947-48 (an unusually high
number, caused by women with heart disease), to 0 in 1962.97 It was Irish women’s
larger family size that contributed to this higher rate, with greater numbers of
pregnancies and deliveries resulting in a concomitant raised mortality and morbidity
rate. But it was the babies that bore the brunt of mortality and morbidity in Ireland:
‘Foetal loss is of course higher in this city (Dublin) than in London, but the
circumstances are so different. Foetal loss is improving steadily every year under the
influence of the maternity hospitals, but childbirth being what it is the loss in a
community having four or more children per family must of necessity be greater than
in communities having one and a half to two children per family…The risks to mother
96 J.K. Feeney, ‘Caesarean Section in Dublin’ in Irish Journal of Medical Science, Sixth Series, No.
276, December 1948, p. 777.
97 The adjusted annual average in the 1940s and 1950s at the Rotunda was 2 deaths following
section each year.
and child increase with increasing parity.’98 Foetal loss was generally higher in
Ireland than in Britain, at an average of 7% of all deliveries, compared with just over
4% nationally in the UK.99 The difference was claimed to lie in emergency, unbooked
cases in Ireland: the adjusted rate for booked cases was 4.6%.100
Alternatives to Symphysiotomy or Caesarean Section for Disproportion:
There were few safe alternatives until the mid 1950s. The Rotunda deviated from the
NMH and the Coombe in avoiding symphysiotomy in the late 1940s, and successive
Masters explored other possibilities for safe delivery. In the 1940s, the hospital had
initiated a policy of early induction of labour, hoping to avoid the problem of
disproportion by delivering the baby before it reached its full size and weight. Babies
were induced at 37 weeks, with variable results: ‘Our policy has been to induce
labour to avoid excessive disproportion by puncture of the membranes rather than
bougies, and to combine this with medicinal induction unless there appears to be
established disproportion, but we do not attempt induction before the 37th week. If
moderate disproportion is already present we prefer to allow trial labour at term, and,
if in doubt of the final outcome, to perform Caesarean section.’101 There were many
problems associated with the delivery of pre-term babies, and respiratory difficulties
in particular were common. Moreover, it was still an unreliable means of avoiding the
problems of disproportion, which often did not become clear until the second stage of
labour. The personal preferences of the Masters determined delivery policy, and
E.W.L. Thompson of the Rotunda explored other possibilities because of his own
dislike of symphysiotomy. Section rates were higher there than the other two
hospitals for this reason: ‘Some of the less severe cases (of disproportion) could
certainly have been treated by symphysiotomy, and probably very successfully. I
cannot however, get away from my dislike for the general use of this procedure.’102
Across the hospitals, there was a tendency to allow women to continue in labour for
longer periods than in Britain, a policy that attracted critical comment in the 1940s.
98 A.P. Barry, ‘Transactions’, Irish Journal of Medical Science 1955, p. 531.
99 ‘Transactions’, Irish Journal of Medical Science 1951, p. 1030.
100100 Booked cases had a better outlook for the simple reason that they represented mothers who
attended the hospitals for prenatal care. Any problems could therefore be identified and treated before
they reached a critical point. The unbooked cases formed the majority of the emergency admissions,
often with no accompanying medical history.
101 Rotunda Hospital Report for 1948.
102 Rotunda Hospital Report for 1957.
Maternal Health and Symphysiotomy:
Symphysiotomy is associated with poor maternal health, for two principal reasons.
The first relates to the main indication for the procedure: disproportion and/or
contracted pelvis. Contracted pelvis was relatively common in nutritionally deprived
mothers, who had not achieved full growth before pregnancy. It was frequently
described in Britain in the pre and immediate post-war years, and was specifically
associated with inner-city populations.103 In Ireland, it was common amongst inner
city mothers in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick, but also throughout rural areas.
The economic situation of many Irish families was dire: the 2009 Commission to
Inquire into Child Abuse provides shocking detail regarding the deprivation faced by
many Irish families because of poor wages and unemployment104. Mothers and
children felt the full impact of poor diet, with women in particular suffering from
chronic illness associated with inadequate nutrition. They also presented in labour
with complications that made them poor candidates for general anaesthetic
(anaemic, with heart disease, tubercular), and ensured that symphysiotomy was
considered a safer alternative to caesarean section in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Dublin maternity hospitals served areas of significant deprivation. The health of
mothers in particular was often poor: it was common in working-class families for
mothers to prioritise the health of husbands (as breadwinners) and children over
themselves, leading to high degrees of malnourishment and chronic illness. This was
a feature of working-class life in Britain in the same period, with a similar impact
upon maternal and child health.105 When added to frequent pregnancy and nursing,
mothers were often physically debilitated when they arrived for delivery at hospital.
103 ‘I am personally convinced that nutritional and environmental factors are still responsible for the
high incidence of the milder forms of pelvic contraction which exist in this region to-day.’ Hector R.
MacLennan, ‘The Management of Labour in Contracted Pelvis’ in the British Medical Journal, October
9, 1954, pp. 837-40. MacLennan was a consultant surgeon at the Royal Maternity and Women’s
104 David Gwynn Morgan, Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Chapter 3, ‘Society and the
Schools’, part 1, ‘Social, economic and family background: Child Poverty in Independent Ireland’ 3.013.18,
105 A seminal study of the impact of poverty on child health was conducted by Maud Pember Reeves
of the Fabian Society in Lambeth, a working-class district of London in 1913. The study found
conditions of deprivation identical to those prevailing in areas of inner-city Dublin almost thirty years
later, with large family size, poor nutrition, and a heavy infant mortality rate linked to malnutrition and
disease (there was a new-born mortality rate in Lambeth of 9%, but a total death rate amongst the
children of the study families of a staggering 29%). Round About a Pound a Week (London: The
Fabian Society, 1913).
Women presented with a wide range of chronic illnesses as well as poor physical
condition, and this was a source of concern throughout their pregnancies, and had
major implications for delivery and for the early health of their children. They were
dangerously anaemic (in 1950, 75% of expectant mothers attending the Coombe
were anaemic106), malnourished, and presented with a number of life-threatening
illnesses that made pregnancy a dangerous process. Rates of rheumatic heart
disease and pulmonary tuberculosis were high107, and it became necessary to
establish anaemia clinics for expectant mothers in the 1950s. Each of the hospitals
also had an Almoners Department, whose purpose was to interview patients in order
to determine their ability or otherwise to pay for medical treatment. The almoners
however found themselves in the position of proto-social workers, finding that the
economic, social and health problems faced by Dublin mothers required direct
emergency relief. In the early years, the principal problem was malnutrition, and of
the average 3,000 women assisted each year across the three hospitals, over two
thirds required extra nutrition.108 A major problem in addressing the issue was the
fact that mothers, if given additional food to take home, invariably gave it to their
children and spouses, and continued in the same state of ill-health.109
Malnourishment caused specific obstetric problems, seen in Dublin in unusually high
numbers. Placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta attaches in the lower
part of the uterus rather than the more muscular upper section, occurs commonly in
106 ‘During the year, 30 per cent of our obstetrical patients had a haemoglobin content of less than 50
per cent, whilst 75 per cent of them had less than 70 per cent Hb. These women are ill-fitted to
withstand the stress and strain of pregnancy and labour, they cannot afford blood loss and their
resistance to infection is poor. Malnutrition is the most important single aetiological factor. This state
of ill health occurs as a result of poverty; the diet of bread and tea; lack of cooking facilities; anorexia,
nausea and vomiting and focal sepsis.’ Coombe Hospital Report for 1950, p. 703.
107 In the early 1950s Dr Risteárd Mulcahy was invited by Dr Feeney, Master of the Coombe, to
establish a weekly clinic to treat mothers with heart disease: ‘Rheumatic heart disease was still a
particular scourge among the poorer classes in Ireland and particularly in women….The social
conditions of many of them were poor, particularly in terms of malnutrition, iron deficiency anaemia
and chronic respiratory infections. These were major complicating factors in the heart patients and so
often helped to precipitate heart failure. There is little doubt that when the patients received optimum
medical treatment, combined later with much improved social circumstances, their prognoses were
greatly improved, even without surgery.’ Medical Maverick, p. 101.
108 The hospitals were unable to help all the women in need, so had to prioritise those in the direst
situations. In the Rotunda in 1957 for example it was found that ‘2,009 mothers needed help or
advice. In the Maternity Department, many patients, more particularly attending the anaemia clinic,
needed material aid in procuring extra nourishing foods over and above that which could be obtained
from statutory sources. Voluntary agencies frequently gave this extra assistance, and our own
Samaritan Fund was used to help until such outside aid could be procured. It was observed that
numerous patients did not know what constituted a well-balanced diet, and very many had not
sufficient knowledge to cook plain and essentially nourishing meals.’ ‘Clinical Report’ 1957.
109 Earner-Byrne, Mother and Child; Almoner’s Report, Coombe Hospital (1950), p. 825.
normal pregnancies but usually corrects itself before delivery. In about 10% of cases
the placenta covers the cervix and a caesarean section is required, often relatively
early to avoid the risk of haemorrhage. The condition is more frequent in
malnourished women, those with a history of multiple births, and in mothers with
uterine scarring from caesarean section or routine pregnancy. It can cause anaemia
in mother and child, and is an indication for early, often caesarean, delivery. There
were rarely fewer than 50 full-term or near-term cases in each of the three hospitals
each year, and while maternal mortality with the condition was very low, it took a
heavy toll on babies, with a combined average foetal loss of over a third.
Malnourishment and deprivation produced additional complicating factors, the most
important of which was contracted pelvis, resulting in disproportion at delivery, and
seen in large numbers in British as well as Irish maternity hospitals.110 Prof. T.N.A.
Jeffcoate noted high caesarean section rates in industrial cities in the UK, and
attributed it to pelvic disproportion: ‘In 5 large maternity units in Liverpool not less
than 350 Caesarean sections for disproportion are performed each year. I had
always imagined that the high incidence of contracted pelvis in Liverpool, and
probably in Glasgow as well, was accounted for in large part by Irish immigrants
living in very poor circumstances.’111 Malnourishment was associated with pelvic
contraction, but was also implicated in a series of additional ailments that led to
problems in pregnancy and delivery in Ireland, including an increasing caesarean
section rate: ‘…considering the prevalence of contracted pelvis amongst the poor
patients of this city and the large number of abnormal cases of all kinds admitted
from the city and country, the present Caesarian rate of about 3.5 indicates a
reasonably conservative outlook, as compared to other centres.’112
The Dublin hospitals faced additional difficulties with regard to their patients. Until the
1960s, it was common for women to only present for a hospital delivery once
complications set in. This meant that throughout the 1940s and 1950s, one-third of
110 Pelvic Disproportion was the major indication for both symphysiotomy and caesarean section in
the mid-twentieth century. As general maternal health improved, the numbers of cases dropped
significantly, and as more accurate diagnoses of the condition occurred it was realised that it had
been over-diagnosed in both Britain and Ireland.
111 Prof. T.N.A. Jeffcoate, ‘Disproportion’ in ‘Transactions of the Royal Academy of Medicine in
Ireland’ in The Irish Journal of Medical Science Report of Meeting of October 20th, 1950, p. 857.
112 J.K. Feeney, ‘Caesarian Section in Dublin’ in Irish Journal of Medical Science, Sixth Series, No.
276, December 1948, p. 757.
the cases were ‘unbooked’, and presented in varying stages of difficulty. The
National Maternity Hospital as a result dealt with ‘a very high percentage of
abnormalities’ each year that could not be identified or treated in advance, increasing
the likelihood of interventions such as symphysiotomy and caesarean section. This
was confirmed across the Dublin hospitals, which dealt with not only unbooked
cases, but emergency admissions from rural areas, amounting to 30% of their cases
each year: ‘Our maternal and foetal mortality is influenced by this circumstance and
cannot be fairly compared to those institutions which deal with circumscribed
geographical areas.’113 The rural cases were a particular problem in that many
patients had already been in labour for extraordinarily long periods of time before
admission to hospital: 50 hours was high in the early years, but not exceptional.
Many of these patients had already undergone failed attempts at forceps delivery
and other interventions, and in many cases the foetus was in distress and
sometimes already dead. Thus the Dublin hospitals faced particular problems in
terms of its patient profile, which made obstetric care challenging, to say the least.
In addition (or perhaps as a contributing factor to) the poor health of mothers was an
exceptionally high birth rate for married women: ‘Fertility in the Republic was
considerably higher than in any other western European country from the 1950s up
to 2000, a period in history when control gradually became the norm. Even in the
1960s, thirty per cent of all births in the Republic were fifth births or higher. This
figure had reduced to fifteen per cent by 1980, and to five per cent by 1990.’114 When
the Advisory Body on Voluntary Health Insurance reported in 1956, it noted that
premiums for maternity care would be higher than for other covers, given the high
fertility rates for married Irishwomen: ‘The rate of fertility among married women in
this country is high. During the period 1950-1952, the average annual number of
births per 1,000 women of childbearing age was 254, compared with 111 in Britain.
In the USA the figure for 1949-51 was 150, and in Denmark it was 136 for the same
113 J.K. Feeney, Coombe Hospital Report, in ‘Transactions’, Irish Journal of Medical Science, 1955, p.
114 Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: the ‘abortion trail’ and the making of a London-Irish
underground, 1980-2000 London: IASC Publishing, 2009, p. 91.
115 Advisory Body on Voluntary Health Insurance Scheme Report Dublin: Government Publications,
Stationary Office, 1956, p. 17.
The high birth rate, and poor health, contributed to a considerably higher than
average maternal mortality rate in Ireland in comparison with other countries,
although the gap closed steadily as the century advanced.
Maternal Mortality Rates116:
Maternal Mortality Rates in Ireland117, the USA, England & Wales, and the
Netherlands from 1920 to 1960:118
IRELAND USA ENG &
1920 62.8 68.9 43.3 24.0
1930 50.4 63.6 44.0 33.3
1940 40.2 37.6 26.1 23.5
116 Rate expressed as maternal deaths per 10,000 births.
117 Central Statistics Office, Vital Statistics, chapter 4 Infant Mortality, Stillbirths and Maternal
Mortality, p. 156.
118 Figures for the USA, England & Wales and the Netherlands taken from Irvine S.L. Loudon,
‘Childbirth’ in Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine, Volume 2 London: Routledge,
1993, p. 1067.
1950 15.5 8.3 8.7 10.5
1960 5.7 3.7 3.9 3.7
There is another important issue with regard to the prevalence of symphysiotomy in
Dublin and Drogheda in particular, and its relative absence in the regional hospitals.
The Dublin Masters consistently cited poor maternal health as a explanation for
symphysiotomy. Their annual reports confirm that significant numbers of mothers
often presented with problematic labours, and underlying, often chronic, medical
conditions that made them difficult obstetrical cases. The obstetricians were both
prepared for unusual cases, and were experienced in less common procedures such
as symphysiotomy, making it a viable intervention. In other maternity hospitals
throughout the country, however, the procedure may well have been avoided
because of a lack of training and experience in its use. This factor remains a central
element in discussions regarding symphysiotomy’s use in the modern world: as
noted earlier, even when an obstetrician is aware of the appropriate indications for
symphysiotomy, there may be a reluctance to employ it because of a lack of
experience.119 Such caution seems a sensible approach to such a major medical
intervention. But the role of the individual practitioner is also important. As is evident
from the Dublin ‘Transactions’, some obstetricians had a greater faith in the
procedure than others, and were instrumental in its use. This is also the case with
Gerard Connolly in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, where the operation
was much more extensively used than in any other regional hospital (see below).
The fact that symphysiotomy largely ceased in Drogheda on Connolly’s retirement
underlines the association between an individual belief in the value of the procedure,
and the experience to undertake it.
Context for Reintroduction of Symphysiotomy:
The procedure of symphysiotomy was reintroduced in Ireland in the mid 1940s. The
principal contexts for its use were:
119 ‘Not only are the indications for symphysiotomy rare in developed countries, but the cases that
might benefit from symphysiotomy – mainly obstructed after-coming-head and failed instrumental
delivery in a woman unfit for an urgent CS – are such dire emergencies, that it is hardly a suitable
opportunity to teach the procedure or even for an obstetrician to maintain a rarely used skill.’ Douwe
Arie Anne Verkuyl, ‘Think Globally, Act Locally: the case for symphysiotomy’ in PLoS Medicine,
March 2007, Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 401-406.
It helped to achieve a predominant goal in obstetrics of a vaginal delivery.
It offered a means of avoiding caesarean section in cases of minor to
From the 1940s, there was a continuing rise in hospital deliveries, and a
concurrent rise in major interventions including caesarean section, forceps
delivery, and episiotomies
The maternal mortality rate was much lower with symphysiotomy than
Advances in technology, especially x-ray, encouraged consideration of the
prevalence of pelvic disproportion
There was a growing concern regarding the rise in caesarean section, and the
risks associated with multiple sections
Sterilisation for contraceptive purposes and contraception were illegal,
ensuring an exceptionally high birth rate.
The poor health of many mothers presenting for delivery necessitated an
increasingly interventionist obstetric policy
Obstetric care was utterly transformed following the Second World War. Up until the
mid 1930s, maternal mortality rates had remained largely unchanged in Britain and
Ireland from the 1860s. One of the most dangerous places to deliver a baby prior to
1930 was in hospital, where mothers contracted puerperal fever in huge numbers.
Despite the establishment of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
in 1929 (later the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists), and an
increasing emphasis upon education and training, standards across Britain and
Ireland were very varied and mortality rates high. The introduction of sulphonamide
drugs120 however had a dramatic effect on survival rates, and combined with
penicillin (available from 1945), significantly reduced maternal mortality. The
introduction of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes directed considerable sums of money
towards the improvement of the three Dublin maternity hospitals, which received
£318,483 between them from 1931-5.121 Thus by 1945 medical standards had risen,
and a more interventionist obstetric policy developed in both countries. In Britain,
120 The first effective drug treatments against bacterial infection developed in Germany in the early
121 Joseph Robins, ‘Public Policy and the Maternity Services’ in Masters, Midwives and Ladies-In-
Waiting: The Rotunda Hospital 1745-1995, Dublin: A&A Farmar, 1995, p. 287.
with the creation of the National Health Service, births increasingly took place in
hospital, with the domiciliary system of delivery falling rapidly out of favour.122 In
Ireland, the numbers of women delivering at home also decreased, but more slowly
than in Britain, and the ‘extern’ service of the three Dublin hospitals, and to a lesser
extent outside the major cities, remained a feature until the early 1970s.
Relative risks of Symphysiotomy and Caesarean Section:
One of the principal reasons for employing symphysiotomy was the dangers
associated with Caesarean Section, which were very real in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Although the operation had a high rate of success, it also had a far greater maternal
mortality rate than symphysiotomy, and a higher total foetal loss rate. In the NMH in
1952 for example, 18 symphysiotomies were performed with no maternal deaths and
two stillbirths, while 56 sections were undertaken, with 4 maternal deaths and 5
foetal deaths (2 stillbirths and 3 neonatal deaths).123 The relative death rates for the
two procedures remained relatively consistent. The maternal mortality rate for
sections declined slowly but steadily, as the general health of mothers improved, but
was always significantly higher than for symphysiotomy, where maternal deaths
were very rare. It is important at this point to emphasise that in discussing relative
mortality rates, it is understood that in very many cases deaths occurred not as a
direct result of the procedure, whether symphysiotomy or CS, but because of an
underlying health problem that was exacerbated by pregnancy and delivery. In the
1950s and ‘60s, section was performed under general anaesthetic, which carried a
much higher degree of risk than the local anaesthetic required for symphysiotomy:
this risk applied equally in other operations requiring general anaesthetic. Moreover,
CS is often utilised because of a health risk to the mother in particular, meaning that
even before the operation the patient is in a disadvantaged state.
The maternal health outcomes for symphysiotomy and section have been
extensively studied elsewhere, and the findings broadly confirm the Irish experience:
Maternal and perinatal mortality, comparing the outcomes of
symphysiotomy and caesarean section, were analysed in ten
122 Martin Gorsky, ‘The British National Health Service 1948-2008: A Review of the Historiography,’
Social History of Medicine, Dec 2008, Vol. 21 Issue 3, pp 437-460
123 Report of the National Maternity Hospital for 1952.
studies conducted between 1908 and 1995 comprising about 800
symphysiotomies and 1200 caesarean sections. Maternal mortality
was four times higher with caesarean section than with
symphysiotomy during the first half of the century and six times
higher in the second half of the century. Perinatal mortality was the
same for symphysiotomy and caesarean section.124
Perinatal outcomes were rather better in Ireland in the later years of use. In the
Dublin hospitals, perinatal deaths were on average 15% for symphysiotomy in the
1940s, dropping to 8% in the early to mid-1950s.125 Caesarean section perinatal
death rates were higher, and varied year to year, but saw a similar drop from a high
of 25% to 12% in the period under review. There were of course remarkable
exceptions to the accepted rules, which were specifically commented upon. One
mother’s spectacular reproductive career ended with a caesarean hysterectomy in
1951: ‘Case 4 must present a world’s record in Caesarean sections: 3 classical, 6
lower segment and 1 Caesarean hysterectomy (10). This woman had a scarred but
adequate abdominal wall. During her obstetrical life of 18 years, she had enjoyed
good health. She experienced the ministrations of no less than four successive
Masters of the Hospital (Healy, Corbet, Keelan, Feeney). Microscopial examination
of the scarred uterus showed excessive tissue with, in places, absence of muscle.’126
Vaginal delivery remains a key goal within obstetrics today, and is described as a
‘normal’ birth in contrast to delivery by caesarean, forceps or other medical
intervention. The National Health Service in Britain is committed to lowering the
section rate in its hospitals, which currently stands at 24.6%127, and there are
widespread concerns regarding a general misconception regarding the absolute
safety of caesarean section: given its prevalence, there is a tendency to
underestimate the risks associated with what is major abdominal surgery.128 The
124 Kenneth Bjorklund, ‘Minimally invasive surgery for obstructed labour: a review of
symphysiotomy during the twentieth century (including 5000 cases)’ in British Journal of Obstetrics
and Gynaecology, March 2002, Vol. 109, pp. 236–248.
125 Clinical Reports for the Dublin Maternity Hospitals, 1944-1984.
126 Clinical Report of the Coombe Lying-In Hospital for 1951, p. 29.
127 ‘Focus on Caesarean Section’, National Health Service Institute, 2007
128 In addition to concerns regarding patient safety, there are also anxieties over the financial
implications in increasingly straightened times for the NHS. Costs for a CS patient are over 25%
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK has recently
recommended that women in Britain should be offered CS if they wish it, and not
primarily, as at present, on medical grounds. Their November 2011 guidelines offer a
detailed analysis, and series of recommendations, regarding the increase in
caesarean deliveries in Britain, and an acknowledgement of the importance of
maternal choice in ensuring a safe and satisfactory delivery.129 In the United States,
where the CS rate has increased substantially, there are similarly intense debates
over vaginal versus CS deliveries.130 A recent study of the Irish case has revealed
substantial differences in section rates across maternity units, from the lowest at
22% of births at the National Maternity Hospital Dublin to a high of 43% at St. Lukes
Hospital, Kilkenny.131 Nationally, the Irish rate is 26.2% of births, a steadily
increasing number. What is little realised is that Caesarean Section still carries a
higher maternal mortality rate in the western world than vaginal delivery, and is
associated with significant long-term health problems. A recent study in France
indicates that: ‘After adjustment for potential confounders, the risk of postpartum
death was 3.6 times higher after caesarean than after vaginal delivery…Both
prepartum132 and intrapartum133 caesarean delivery were associated with a
significantly increased risk. Caesarean delivery was associated with a significantly
increased risk of maternal death from complications of anaesthesia, puerperal
infection, and venous thromboembolism.’134 Similarly, in Britain caesarean section is
the highest single cause of mortality in hospital deliveries at 61%135 of all hospital
higher than a normal delivery, with mothers having a hospital stay of 3-4 days, as opposed to just 1, in
addition to theatre costs.
129 NICE Clinical Guideline, ‘Caeserean Section’, November 2011, pp. 1-282.
130 Fay Menacker & Brady E. Hamilton, ‘Recent Trends in Caesarean Delivery in the United States’
National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, No. 35, March 2010, pp 1-2.
131 A recent study by Cuidiú, The Consumer’s Guide to Maternity Services in Ireland, provides
detailed information on relative rates of CS section for first-time mothers as well as sections in
subsequent pregnancies. See http://www.bump2babe.ie/column/P/statistics/ for both the statistics,
and analysis for the trends relating to delivery choices.
132 The period before delivery.
133 Pertaining to the period during labour and birth.
134 Catherine Deneux-Tharaux, Elodie Carmona, Marie-Heléne Bouvier-Colle, & Gérard Bréart,
‘Postpartum Maternal Mortality and Caesarean Delivery’ in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, September
2006, Vol. 108, No. 3, Part 1, pp. 541-8.
135 G. Lewis, ‘Saving Mother’s Lives: reviewing maternity deaths to make motherhood safer, 20032005’
The Seventh Report on Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in the United Kingdom
London: CEMACH, 2007, P. 13
maternal deaths.136 A large-scale international study of the topic published in 2007
confirmed the relative risks of section delivery, which were higher for elective
sections than emergency. Examining a total of 106,546 births over a three month
period in eight Latin American countries, the researchers found that:
Caesarean delivery independently reduces overall risk in breech137
presentations…[however]…the increase in rates of caesarean
delivery at an institutional level is not associated with any clear
overall benefit for the baby or mother but is linked with increased
morbidity for both…In the crude analysis, the maternal mortality and
morbidity index in women in the elective caesarean delivery group
(5.5%) was higher than that in the intrapartum caesarean group
(4.9%) and vaginal delivery groups (1.8%).138
In Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, the maternal mortality rate for caesarean
section was much higher, and was a constant source of discussion. Symphysiotomy
was therefore regarded by some obstetricians as a means of reducing the number of
deaths. In the ‘Transactions’ for 1961, Dr Gallagher proposed a more extensive
study of the possibilities of symphysiotomies: ‘I think if we are going to state a policy
with regard to CS in Dublin it should be to keep down the number of sections as far
as possible. One way of achieving that would be for the three Masters to select 30
cases a year each and do elective symphysiotomies on them.’139 The suggestion
was not implemented, not least because the actual numbers (as opposed to the
proportionate use in total deliveries) of symphysiotomies had plateaued, and repeat
caesarean sections were becoming increasingly common, as well as safer. The
numbers of sections for conditions other than dire emergency in labour were rising,
with good results: ‘Falkiner [of the Rotunda] was innovative in extending the use of
136 Again it is important to emphasise that the section does not necessarily cause the death. In many
cases, an underlying medical condition may make a section necessary, but factors such as heart
disease, high blood pressure, or pre-eclampsia makes the outlook poor.
137 A baby born with feet or buttocks first. Complications in labour are more common with breech
138 Jose Villar, Guillermo Carrdi, Nelly Zavaleki, Allan Donner, Daniel Wojdyla, Anibal Faundes,
Alejandro Velazco, Vicente Bataglia, Ana Langer, Alberto Narváez, Eliette Valladareo, Arichana Shah,
Liana Campodónico, Mariana Romero, Sofia Reynoso, Karla Simônia de Pádua, Daniel Giordano,
Maricus Kublickas and Arnaldo Acosta, ‘Maternal and Neonatal Individual Risks and Benefits
Associated with Caesarean Delivery: multicentre prospective study’ in British Medical Journal, 2007,
November 17; 335 (7628) 1025.
139 ‘Transactions’ in Irish Journal of Medical Science, 1961, p. 536.
caesarean section for conditions other than disproportion and ante-partum
haemorrhage from placenta praevia. He used it more liberally than ever before in the
management of severe cases of pre-eclamptic toxaemia140 of pregnancy, and was
criticised for doing so by the Academy. However, as time went by the results fully
justified the policy.’141 By the early 1960s, it was becoming increasingly clear that
with improved maternal health, and better surgical and anaesthetic techniques,
repeat caesareans no longer held the dangers they once had. A short study
conducted at the Rotunda confirmed this trend: ‘A preliminary study of Multiple
Repeat Caesarean Sections from Rounda Hospital Records by Dr Terence Hynes
suggests that multiple repeat section in fact constitutes a very small degree of
danger to the patient. Out of 115 cases who had already undergone at least three
previous Caeseaean Sections there was no rupture of the uterus, no maternal
mortality and minimal foetal loss.’142
Long-term Effects of Symphysiotomy:
The nature of the procedure, and the potential danger of introducing pelvic instability,
was at the forefront of obstetricians’ minds from the 1940s. It proved a constant
source of discussion at the Royal Academy of Medicine, when Obstetricians of the
Royal College travelled to Dublin to discuss the maternity hospital reports, but also
between the Masters of the three Dublin hospitals. Many of the reports include detail
regarding the short-term impact of the procedure, and present individual case notes
up to discharge. Some patients returned for follow-up, but it was more common for
mothers to come to hospital only when they were about to deliver their next baby.
The Dublin hospital reports provide some detail on the figures (recovery, ambulation,
incontinence, pain), follow-up in some cases,143 and commentary on subsequent
140 A potentially fatal condition of pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure, protein in the urine,
abnormal weight gain, and oedema [excessive swelling].
141 Browne, p. 30.
142 Rotunda Hospital Annual Report for 1961, p. 29.
143 Reporting is not consistent. Many patients failed to attend hospital for follow-up, and in some
reports note is taken of women who subsequently underwent a spontaneous vaginal delivery, but
does not comment on general health.
In 1955, the Master of the Coombe Hospital published a review of symphysiotomy
patients144 who had undergone the procedure between January 1950 and December
1953, and reported these results145:
Difficulty in Walking
44 experienced no difficulty whatever
2 had difficulty after a long walk, of about one mile
2 had difficulty “if already tired”
1 had a tired feeling in the right leg after a long walk
1 complained of difficulty, but this was not substantiated by observation
Difficulty in lifting heavy articles, such as a bucket of water
39 experienced no difficulty
4 “could not manage” a bucket of water
3 felt “uncomfortable” in the pelvis, when lifting such a weighty article
2 had difficulty from the 7th month of a succeeding pregnancy
1 had “occasional” difficulty in lifting weights
Pain in the back
35 had no backache
8 had “occasional” backache
4 had “fairly constant” backache
144There were periodic reports of symphysiotomy outcomes throughout the annual reports. The
Coombe listed the following results in 1947 from the total of nine women who had undergone the
procedure that year:
No 23: ‘…patient up on 9th day – discharged on 16th day. Follow up: three months later – no disability.’
No. 24:’…discharge on 17th day – no disability. Returned 4 weeks later with frequency of micturition –
cystitis, which yielded quickly to Sulphonamides. Two months later – quite well.’
No. 25: ‘…Patient discharged well on 17th day. Attended the Academy of Medicine walking perfectly
on 16th day. Follow up not possible.’
No. 26: ‘…Patient discharged on 16th day walking well. Came back 3 days later complaining of some
pain in region of wound. There was local sepsis, wound was incised, and sepsis cleared up perfectly
in 4 days. Left hospital without x-ray. Follow up impossible.’
No. 27: ‘Patient up on 9th day. Discharged free of all disability on 16th day. Returned 2 months later
complaining of slight stress incontinence. On examination with bladder full this could not be
demonstrated when lying down, but was evident in the erect position. Still under observation.’
No. 28: ‘…Patient up on 10th day, discharged, walking well and without disability on 16th day. Two
months later – no disability.’
No. 29: Discharged on 19th day.
No. 30: ‘…Patient up on 10th day, discharged walking perfectly on 14th day.
No. 31: ‘no comment on condition after operation.’
145 Report of the Coombe Maternity Hospital for 1954, pp. 55-6.
2 had backache “during the period”
1 had backache in the late weeks of a succeeding pregnancy
Incontinence of urine
38 had normal control over micturition
2 had poor control with “bad cough”
2 had defective control, but only in last two months of a succeeding pregnancy
1 had defective control in bad weather
1 had defective control for 3 months after symphysiotomy, but then regained
1 had defective control when pregnant next time, in cold weather and just before
1 had slight incontinence on sneezing
1 had to “run” when she “felt the impulse”
1 had poor control “at intervals”
1 had poor control
And in 1, stress incontinence had preceded symphysiotomy and has since been
cured by sub-urethral repair
Other complaints which might be connected with the operation
1 complained of “deadness” in one leg on long standing
1 complained of “coldness” and “pain” in one leg
1 complained of “coldness” in one leg during period and when pregnant next time
1 complained of “occasional weakness” in legs
1 complained of “a feeling of strain” in the pelvis
Pregnancy following symphysiotomy
21 patients each had one spontaneous vertex146 delivery of a living infant
1 patient had an easy assisted breech delivery of a living 9lb foetus
4 women had each 2 spontaneous vertex deliveries
3 women each had 3 spontaneous vertex deliveries
146 Baby delivered head first.
1 patient had, to follow the symphysiotomy, one Caesarean Section and then 2 easy
1 patient had, to follow the symphysiotomy, one Caesarean Section
(spondylolisthesis),147 not suitable for symphysiotomy in the first instance
1 had a spontaneous delivery of a large postmature macerated148 foetus
1 patient had an abortion
1 patient had a miscarriage
16 patients have not become pregnant so far
As is well established, reported pain following any injury or medical intervention is
highly individual, and assessments are likely to be effected by the expectation of
both the patient and the physician. Patients undergoing identical procedures will
report a wide variety of responses, good and bad, that offer very different
perspectives on treatment. Moreover, the questions asked of a patient will have a
significant effect upon their response, and the manner in which it is recorded. The
relationship between patient and practitioner will also effect, if not predetermine, the
outcome. This is noted in the results above: the Master somewhat paternalistically
notes that he did not himself interview the patients at follow-up, in order to avoid the
personal relationship from influencing the women’s responses: ‘In case the answers
of the patients to specific questions might be coloured by any gratitude which they
might feel, the interviews were not carried out by me.’
The early conclusions appear to be supported by follow-up reports from the modern
developing world. A number of studies of long-term effects have been conducted,149
which concur broadly with the Dublin reports. A study of a small cohort of 34 women
after symphysiotomy in Zimbabwe in 2008 for example found the following results:
‘None reported serious soft tissue injuries in the birth canal e.g. laceration, fistulae,
and haemorrhage, or post-operative infection. One suffered stress incontinence,
eight reported pain on walking, seven of them after 10-20 kilometres. One woman
147 Forward displacement of one of the lower lumbar vertebrae over the vertebra below it or on the
148 A stillborn infant with skin and tissue softening.
149 There are methodological problems with these reports, which are acknowledged by authors, in that
patient return for follow-up is even more erratic than in the mid-twentieth century Irish case. The
criteria for inclusion are however clearly laid out, and the results, although relatively small-scale, are
(stress incontinence above) who delivered a baby with hydrocephalus150 had pain in
symphysis pubis and a feeling of instability in pelvis when walking any distance…the
results from the present study and previous follow-up studies indicate that
symphysiotomy confers an acceptable level of complaints in the long run.’151 A
follow-up study of 100 South African patients in 1963 specifically addressed the
issue of pain, examining the symphysis pubis, groin, hip, thigh, sacro-iliac joint and
evaluating stress incontinence. It was found that there were some long-term effects,
but negative reports were slightly higher amongst the control group of women who
had had a normal vaginal delivery. 60% of this group reported some or all of the
symptoms during the follow-up period or in a subsequent pregnancy, compared with
58% of the symphysiotomy patients. Tests included walking, running, jumping and
carrying weights.152 In 1975, the results of a Nigerian study comparing outcomes of
symphysiotomy with caesarean section were published. It found that long-term
effects were similar with both procedures, with the two cohorts reporting sub-fertility
(7%), stress incontinence (3%) and backache (25%).153 A comparative study of
symphysiotomy (86 patients) and caesarean section (920) in New Guinea showed
better outcomes for the symphysiotomy patients in terms of maternal mortality and
morbidity154, and so on.
There is no doubt that some women have suffered adverse effects from the
procedure, and in the case of patients who went on to have subsequent children,
there may well have been an exacerbation of operative injuries. Part of the problem
in assessing long term problems after symphysiotomy is that other factors, including
subsequent pregnancies, may themselves contribute to chronic ill health.
Incontinence occurs in approximately 10% of women as a result of normal
150 A condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, typically in young children, enlarging the head
and sometimes causing brain damage. Babies with hydrocephalus were difficult to deliver, and the
condition accounted for a number of symphysiotomies in Dublin in the 1940s and ‘50s in particular.
151 Henge Langi Ersdal, Douwe A.A. Verkuyl, Kenneth Bjorklund & Staffan Bergström,
‘Symphysiotomy in Zimbabwe; Postoperative Outcome, Width of the Symphysis Joint, and
Knowledge, Attitudes and Practice among Doctors and Midwives’ in PLoS One, 2008, Vol. 3(10),
e3317. See also Staffan Bergström, H. Lublin, & A. Molin, ‘Value of symphysiotomy in obstructed
labour management and follow-up of 31 cases’ in Gynecologic and Obstetric Investigation 1994, No.
38, pp. 31–5.
152 A.H. Lasbrey, ‘The Symptomatic Sequelae of Symphysiotomy: a follow-up study of 100 patients
subjected to symphysiotomy’ in South African Medical Journal 1963; vol. 37, pp. 231-234.
153 V.J. Hartfield, ‘Late Effects of symphysiotomy’ in Tropical Doctor 1975, Vol. 5, pp. 76-78.
154 G. Mola, M. Lamang, ad I. Mcgoldrick, ‘A retrospective study of matched symphysiotomies and
caesarean sections at Port Moresby General Hospital’ in Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 1981;
pregnancy and delivery,155 and incontinence may set in long after delivery: women
with temporary loss of urinary control immediately after delivery which resolves itself
are in fact three times more likely to suffer incontinence in the five years following
delivery than women without children.156 There are also well established links with
long-term pelvic girdle pain and pregnancy (http://www.pelvicgirdlepain.com/ ). When
the media first began to cover the story of symphysiotomy in Ireland, many women
approached the hospitals where they had delivered, as they had suffered long-term
health problems after births including incontinence and chronic back pain. They now
feared that they had had symphysiotomies, and as many patients had not been
aware that they had undergone the procedure, this was an understandable reaction.
In one hospital for example, nine women came forward, of whom two had actually
undergone the procedure. ‘Normal’ pregnancy and delivery can carry a significant
morbidity rate, an element that needs to be addressed as part of any review of
The Decline in Symphysiotomy:
The procedure went into increasing decline from the early 1960s. There are several
Improvements in maternal health, that significantly reduced the risks of
pregnancy and delivery. These included better nutrition and housing, and
improved medical provision under the Health Act of 1953157
Increasing use of repeat Lower Section Caesarean Section, as evidence
indicated that the established ‘Three Caesarian Rule’ pertaining to the
‘Classical Section’ was outmoded
155 E. Eason E et al. ‘Effects of carrying a pregnancy and of method of delivery on urinary
incontinence: A prospective cohort study.’ Bio Medical Central Pregnancy and Childbirth 2004, 4:4.
See also Thom D et al. ‘Evaluation of parturition and other reproductive variables as risk factors for
urinary incontinence in later life’ in Obstetrics and Gynaecology 1997, Vol. 90 (6), pp. 983-9.
156 S. Stanton , R. Kerr-Wilson & V. Grant Harris, ‘The incidence of urological symptoms in normal
pregnancy’ in British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 1980, Vol. 87, pp. 897-900.
157 Under this act, women were entitled to a full maternity service, and could choose their own doctor
or midwife. They also had the option of private care for a fee in nursing homes. ‘Comprehensive
medical and nursing care for their infants was also provided for. Maternity cash grants of £4 for each
birth were introduced for women in what became known as the lower income group. A requirement on
health authorities to provide child welfare clinic services was substituted for the permission to do so.’
Brendan Hensey, The Health Services of Ireland (2nd revised edition, Dublin: Institute of Public
Administration, 1972), p. 25
Increasing use of drugs such as oxytocin to shorten labour, reducing the need
A growing realisation, shared with obstetricians in Britain, that pelvic
disproportion had been over-diagnosed
Maternity care in Ireland, in common with the rest of the western world, improved
steadily throughout the twentieth century. The World Health Organisation’s report on
Maternal Mortality in 2005 confirms an exceptionally low rate of maternal mortality in
twenty-first century Ireland, the lowest in the world. Maternal mortality is now grossly
unevenly distributed, with an astonishing 99% of pregnancy and labour-related
deaths occurring in the developing world, where an estimated 536,000 women die
each year.158 Ireland’s preeminent position makes the condition of women in the
developing world truly devastating to contemplate. WHO defines the risk of maternal
mortality as the likelihood that a ‘15-year-old female will die eventually from a
maternal cause…Of all 171 countries and territories for which estimates were made
in 2005, Niger had the highest estimated lifetime risk of 1 in 7, in stark contrast to
Ireland, which had the lowest lifetime risk of 1 in 48 000.’
The early 1960s marked a turning point in terms of the use of symphysiotomy in
Ireland. Post-war improvements in housing, nutrition, and hospital care had made a
dramatic impact upon maternal health, and legislative change such as the Health Act
of 1954, which established a public health care system, now offered a basic level of
care to the impoverished. TB had been brought under control, rates of chronic illness
such as rheumatic heart disease were lowered, and there was direct intervention in
public health to control infectious disease.159 Public housing schemes began, and
158 ‘Of the estimated total of 536 000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2005, developing countries
accounted for 99% (533 000) of these deaths… By the broad MDG [Millennium Development Goals –
the WHO’s stated targets for improvements in maternal health care] regions, MMR [Maternal Mortality
Rate] in 2005 was highest in developing regions (at 450 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births), in
stark contrast to developed regions (at 9) and countries of the commonwealth of independent states
(at 51). These countries are (listed in descending order): Sierra Leone (2100), Niger (1800),
Afghanistan (1800), Chad (1500), Somalia (1400), Angola (1400), Rwanda (1300), Liberia (1200),
Guinea Bissau (1100), Burundi (1100), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1100), Nigeria (1100),
Malawi (1100), and Cameroon (1000). By contrast, Ireland had an MMR of 1.’ World Health
Organisation, Maternal Mortality in 2005: Estimates Developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the
World Bank (WHO Press, 2007), p. 1.
159 The recent TV3 documentary series ‘The Tenements’ gives an idea of the conditions under which
large families lived, and an indication of how the new suburban developments were heralded as a
moved families from one-room tenements to flats on the outskirts of the city.160
Moreover, there had been advances in medical care that led to symphysiotomy’s
decline. Obstetricians found that quickening the pace of labour eliminated the need
for such intervention, and new drugs such as oxytocin which accelerated labour,
produced vaginal deliveries without the need for symphysiotomy. One of the
indicators for symphysiotomy was inertia during labour. This had been overcome by
symphysiotomy, which in allowing the baby’s head to descend, had advanced the
process. Although modern practice questions excessively rapid labour, in the 1960s
it was heralded as a safe and positive advance, effectively eliminating the
horrendous marathon labours of 50 and 60 hours that had occurred in the 1940s.
The impact of wider changes in Ireland were noted by the British obstetricians. In the
discussions for 1965, Ian Donald of Glasgow commented: ‘There are details in
looking back over 10 years but the general picture is one of clearly increased social
wellbeing with less of the diseases that go with bad social conditions.’161 At the same
meeting he made specific comment on symphysiotomy, with a prescient indication of
its future application: ‘After the last meeting in 1955 I came away from Dublin more
impressed with symphysiotomy than I would be today. It seems to be dying a natural
death. I could find none mentioned in the Coombe record, only 5 at the National as
compared with 33 cases ten years ago, and 4 at the Rotunda, one of whom still had
to be delivered by CS. In one of the cases the uterus was ruptured. I can’t help
feeling that this is attempting to secure delivery per vaginam at too high a price. I am
still, however, convinced of the value of symphysiotomy in underdeveloped
communities such as in East Africa where patients disappear into the bush for their
next baby after a Caesarean section and where at Makerere, which I visited last
summer, 25 per cent of uterine ruptures are in previous Caesarean section scars.’162
Only a year later, the further decline in symphysiotomy excited notice. Prof Geoffrey
Dixon of Bristol recorded: ‘The low incidence of symphysiotomy in all units has
tempted me into venturing into a prophecy of what your invited speaker will have to
show for symphysiotomy in 10 years time i.e. 0.0%. There seem to me two possible
explanations for this falling incidence, either you are adopting a UK policy in
160 This was to prove a mixed blessing. Although living conditions vastly improved in the new
accommodation, some families found themselves isolated in the new estates, and mothers often
found it difficult to afford the bus fare to travel to the city hospitals for check-ups.
161 ‘Transactions’ in Irish Journal of Medical Science 1965, p. 55.
162 Ibid, pp. 58-9.
relationship to Caesarean Section and symphysiotomy, or improved nutrition in
Dublin is bringing your patients’ pelvis into line with their UK sisters. The figures from
the Rotunda and the comments from the Coombe and the National suggest that the
latter is the true explanation.’163
Continual evaluation of caesarean section, especially repeat sections, were a feature
of the Dublin annual reports, and the findings were shared between the three
hospitals. The Rotunda was particularly interested in the safety of repeat operations,
as symphysiotomy was used there far less than in the NMH and the Coombe. In
1961, the Master reported: ‘A preliminary study of Multiple Repeat Caesarean
Sections from Rounda Hospital Records by Dr Terence Hynes suggests that multiple
repeat section in fact constitutes a very small degree of danger to the patient. Out of
115 cases who had already undergone at least three previous Caeseaean Sections
there was no rupture of the uterus, no maternal mortality and minimal foetal loss.’164
Despite the decline in symphysiotomy use in Dublin, however, the practice was not
yet out of favour in other hospitals:
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda:
As concern has been expressed regarding rates of symphysiotomy at Our Lady’s, it
is appropriate that this draft report specifically examines the practice here; figures
from other national maternity centres suggest a lower usage. Although rates of
symphysiotomy in Our Lady’s appears to reflect the proportionate usage elsewhere,
the preliminary figures indicate that the practice continued at the hospital far later
than at any other institution. Symphysiotomy was still in use in the hospital as late as
1984, albeit in very small numbers. Published reports for Our Lady of Lourdes
Hospital are not available for the entire period of this study. There are clinical reports
from 1959 to 1984, which provide statistical detail on deliveries, and the relative
rates of symphysiotomy and caesarean section.
163 Transactions, Irish Journal of Medical Science, 1966, p. 551.
164 Clinical Report of the Rotunda Hospital for 1961, p. 29.
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda: comparative symphysiotomy and
caesarean section rates:165
YEAR No. Of
as % of
1958 21 44 0 2
1959 14 0.9 0 0 44 2.9 0 7 1,495
48 1.5 0 5 89 2.8 0 6 3,203
40 1.1 0 87 2.5 0 5 3,500
22 0.5 0 2 127 2.9 0 5 4,411
31166 0.6 0 0 152 3.0 1 11 5,014
19168 0.3 0 2 183 3.4 5,435
26 0.5 0 1 199 3.4 1 22 5,771
15 0.3 0 0 186 3.3 0 11 5,702
8 0.1 0 0 203 3.5 0 8 5,725
9 0.1 0 0 222 3.6 0 12 6,088
0.06 0 0 281 4.4 0 8 6,348
165 The hospital produced a combination of annual and biannual reports as indicated, therefore in
some years the figures address a 12 month period rather than a 24.
166 7 of these symphysiotomies were ‘performed after delivery, and during closure of abdominal
wound [often referred to as “symphysiotomy on the way out”].
167 The 1968-69 Report contained a summary of cases of symphysiotomy. ‘There has been a steady
decrease in the use of symphysiotomy throughout the sixties. The operation was performed on a total
of 160 cases [1960-69] with these results:
Vaginal Delivery: 135
Caesarean Section 11
Symphysiotomy on “way out” after CS 14
There were 9 foetal deaths: 5 of congenital malformation, 3 asphyxial death, and 1 traumatic I.C.H.
168 3 “on way out”.
1980 3 0.09 0 0 178 5.5 0 5 3,235
1981 1 0.03 0 0 169 5.6 0 2,998
1982 3 0.1 0 0 170 6.3 2,708
1983 1 0.03 0 0 184 7.0 2,628
1984 3 0.1 0 0 243 10.1 0 8 2,399
The patterns at Our Lady’s suggests a broadly equivalent use of the procedure in
relation to the Dublin hospitals (0.4 of the total deliveries at Lourdes, as opposed to
an aggregate of 0.36 for the NMH and the Coombe169). However, this is not an
accurate picture as it excludes the period in which it was at its height in Dublin, the
late 1940s and early 1950s. The procedure had a far lower maternal and foetal
mortality rate than caesarean section, with no maternal deaths and 10 foetal for
symphysiotomy, against 2 maternal and 110 foetal deaths for section.
Judge Maureen Harding Clark’s report into peripartum hysterectomy at Our Lady’s
investigated not merely the use of the procedure, but the broader culture that existed
at the hospital. That report found a unique situation: one in which consultants,
Gerard Connolly (the founding obstetrician) in particular, were obeyed by the nursing
and management staff without question. The ethos was unswervingly Catholic, with
an absolute ban on artificial contraception even when it was both legal, and broadly
accepted, in other maternity hospitals and indeed in the country at large.170 Connolly
cast a long shadow over obstetric practice at Our Lady’s. The persistence of
symphysiotomy at the hospital twenty years after it had largely ceased elsewhere in
Ireland appears to be specifically linked with Connolly’s tenure. Michael Neary
reported that Connolly ‘was a firm believer in carrying out symphysiotomies in the
hopes of avoiding caesarean section and in this was influenced by Dr.Arthur Barry,
the former Master of Holles Street Maternity Hospital.’171 However, the context in
which symphysiotomy took place at Our Lady’s in the 1970s and ‘80s is very
different from that of the 1950s, when Barry advocated the procedure.
169 The Rotunda figures are excluded from this calculation as they were so low in relation to births that
inclusion would produce an artificially low overall figure for the three hospitals.
170 Astoundingly, Connolly was prepared to undertake caesarean hysterectomies and render a women
permanently infertile, rather than permit artificial contraception, which could easily be reversed.
Harding Clark, p. 233.
171 Harding Clark, p. 233.
The investigation into general obstetric practices at Our Lady’s revealed a centre
dominated by one consultant, with a narrow range of experience and training, whose
dedication to the hospital and its patients apparently precluded criticism. Connolly
continued practices that were increasingly outmoded in the 1970s and early 1980s:
his occasional use of the ‘Classical Section’ (also utilised by Neary) for caesarean
delivery rather than the widely accepted and less traumatic Lower Segment Section
was heavily criticised. Connolly’s continued use of symphysiotomy at a much later
period than other obstetricians also appears to be part of this autocratic, old-
fashioned system. Harding Clark noted that the lack of ongoing training for
practitioners at Our Lady’s contributed to inadequate standards, and this may well be
an element in the hospital’s continued use of symphysiotomy. The procedure was
used in the same clinical situations as in Dublin (mild to moderate disproportion), and
at similar proportionate rates, but its persistence when it had largely disappeared
elsewhere puts it outside accepted practice. All of the factors that saw
symphysiotomy’s national decline were also present at Drogheda (safer LSS
deliveries, better maternal health, use of oxytocin in labour), therefore one would
expect to see Our Lady’s follow the same pattern.
The production of annual clinical reports at Our Lady’s was specifically investigated
by Harding Clark. It had originally been intended by Our Lady’s that the Drogheda
reports be published at the same time as the Dublin maternity hospital reports, in
order to compare practice, but this was generally not achieved until the 1980s.172 If
that original intention had indeed been fulfilled, and if either the Royal College of
Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London or the Institute of Obstetricians and
Gynaecologists in Dublin (after 1976) had been formally required to review the
reports, Our Lady’s continued use of symphysiotomy would have been noticed.
Connolly appeared to view maternity care in the 1970s and ’80s as if it were still the
1950s, and his refusal to countenance contraception, and to approach deliveries in
the belief that caesarean section was still potentially dangerous, ensured that he
retained a faith in symphysiotomy as a solution to obstructed labour.
There is another unusual element in the Drogheda hospital. The symphysiotomies
performed at Our Lady’s include a high number of elective procedures, which would
172 Harding Clark, Inquiry, p. 286.
have been carried out with patient consent: there were nine elective
symphysiotomies out of 40 in 1962-3 for example, amounting to almost a quarter of
the total. This is a different pattern from other centres, where the procedure was
used in the majority of cases during labour, and in a smaller number ‘on the way out’.
Despite the major deficiencies in Connolly’s obstetrical record, the Harding Clark
Inquiry found that many patients as well as colleagues spoke highly of his skill and
dedication to his work, 173 and it is not improbable that some patients who underwent
symphysiotomy did so willingly on his professional advice.174 Connolly’s own
evaluation of symphysiotomy does not suggest a commitment to the procedure at all
costs, and he appeared to welcome its gradual decline.175 However, the fact that it
persisted for so long at Our Lady’s when alternative methods for dealing with difficult
deliveries were available is unacceptable.
Allegations have been made that symphysiotomy at Our Lady’s was employed for
training purposes, to improve techniques for use in the Medical Missionaries of Mary
hospitals in Africa, and the use of procedure at a later stage than other maternity
hospitals has been described as ‘experimental’176 This is a serious allegation,
implying that some symphysiotomies were carried out unnecessarily to facilitate
training, and must be a cause of enormous distress for women who underwent the
procedure. There appears however to be no evidence to support the assertion. Our
Lady’s was an approved training centre by the Royal College of Obstetricians and
Gynaecologists. Moreover, the observation of procedures is a long established, and
173 ibid, pp. 162-4.
174 This can be verified only through an examination of individual patient case notes.
175 His comments in the annual reports indicate his changing attitude towards the
‘[one case in 40 symphysiotomies developed stress incontinence which]…was
successfully treated by suburethral repair. The more frequent use of oxytocin drip and the
vacuum extractor will, undoubtedly, help to reduce the need for symphysiotomy (Clinical
Report for 1962 & 1963).’
‘The oxytocic drip was used much more frequently in the two years under review, than in
previous years. There is no doubt that it is a great asset in shortening labour, and it has
reduced the number of patients requiring symphysiotomy for borderline disproportion
(Clinical Report for 1964 & 1965).’
‘[Commenting on changing indication for the procedure] The 26 cases were all delivered
vaginally of living infants, except for one neonatal death due to hydrocephalus. All cases
were done in labour, 25 being performed in the second stage of labour. There were 10
breech deliveries and one face presentation. The incidence of this operation has been
unchanged over the last 8 years. However, the operation now is nearly always done in
the second stage of labour and never electively or during closure of the abdominal wound
after a caesarean section (Clinical Report for 1970 & 1971).’
176 Marie O’Connor, Bodily Harm (Dublin: Johnswood Press, 2011), pp 117-18.
indeed central element in medical and nursing training, and has been part of Irish
medical training from the eighteenth century.177 The presence of trainee or junior
doctors in theatre was common, and the practice of securing permission from the
patient a relatively recent development. 178 The assertion does not appear to be
supported by the patterns of delivery at Our Lady’s. Symphysiotomy declined
steadily from the mid 1960s, and the caesarean section rate rose at an equally
steady rate: one would expect the operation to be employed to a greater extent, and
a lower CS rate lower as a consequence, to support its inappropriate use as a
Symphysiotomy ‘On the Way Out’:
The context for the reintroduction and eventual decline in symphysiotomy in Ireland
has been examined. When the procedure was first discussed by obstetricians in the
1940s it was regarded as an appropriate response to specific situations, namely mild
to moderate disproportion at delivery. As such, it was an acceptable medical
response to a serious condition, as it remains in parts of the modern world. However,
there is an additional element in its application in certain hospitals in Ireland that
does not conform to standard practice, and that is its use as a prophylactic
procedure, in advance of labour and delayed delivery, and indeed in advance of
pregnancy. Often referred to as symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’, this is a deviation
from good practice.
Symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’ referred to the practice of performing the procedure
immediately after a caesarean section. It occurred when a woman had already
delivered her baby by section, and her abdominal wound was being stitched: the
obstetrician then partially cut the symphysis pubis. It was done in cases where the
obstetrician believed that the patient was suffering from a relatively mild degree of
disproportion, and would be able to deliver her next baby vaginally. Because the
procedure was performed without labour, the degree of pelvic widening was less
than in the usual symphysiotomy: this, it was argued, would avoid the danger of
177 Toby Barnard, ‘The Wider Cultures of Eighteenth-Century Irish Doctors’ in James Kelly and Fiona
Clark (eds) Ireland and Medicine in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Surrey: Ashgate
Press, 2010), p. 185
178 There is international agreement regarding the necessity for informed patient consent to
observation and a very high rate of agreement from patients, especially in teaching hospitals – see
‘Informed Consent Process important to Surgery Patients in Teaching Hospital’ in ScienceDaily,
September 19, 2011.
pelvic instability, but still produce the fractional expansion needed to deliver the next
baby naturally (the scar tissue laid down during healing marginally widened the
pelvic diameter). Also referred to as ‘Prophylactic Symphysiotomy’ (prophylactic
meaning a measure taken to prevent a disease or condition), it is a use of the
procedure that appears to have little clinical justification.179 There are several
Symphysiotomy was and is appropriate only during labour, when the degree
of disproportion can be evaluated (see attached bibliography for reviews on
appropriate use of the procedure)
A woman diagnosed with disproportion in one pregnancy may have a normal
delivery in the next, and require neither symphysiotomy or caesarean section
A decision to undertake a symphysiotomy in an emergency situation may be
clinically justified for the safety of the mother and child, but a non-emergency
application, while the mother is under general anaesthetic, appears
The potential benefit of symphysiotomy before labour, and indeed before
pregnancy, was speculative, and flew in the face of acceptable practice (see
Some obstetricians argued that symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’ was appropriate in
certain cases of moderate disproportion, and that a subsequent pregnancy would be
successfully delivered vaginally once the pelvis was enlarged. But this application of
symphysiotomy violates several principles of good practice that prevailed both in the
1950s and ’60s, and today. From the earliest consistent use of symphysiotomy, there
was general agreement that it was appropriate only in very specific circumstances.
Archibald Donald180 identified its use in emergency deliveries in 1896, and E.
179 It differed from elective symphysiotomy in that the latter was employed in the advanced stages of
pregnancy, often days before labour (very occasionally more than a week). It was advised in cases of
diagnosed disproportion, in order to avoid the dangers of a trial labour that was likely to fail to
proceed. It appears to have been undertaken in consultation with the mothers, and, as such, was a
‘negotiated’ medical decision.
180 Pioneer of the Manchester-Fothergill operation to repair prolapse in young women subsequent to
Hastings Tweedy181 reviewed its use in 1910. He described five degrees of
contraction, and recommended symphysiotomy only in degree three:
with a conjugate measuring between 3••• in and 2•••
in. With such
measurements, normal delivery is neither to be looked for nor
expected….If the woman is long in labour, with the membranes
ruptured, symphysiotomy or pubiotomy should be proferred….Much
has recently been heard of the operations of symphysiotomy,
pubiotomy, and hysterectomy, and many think they are simply rivals
to classical Caesarean Section. Were this so, I should not be
concerned in recommending them to your consideration. They
neither compete with Caesarean Section nor even with each other;
they are complementary operations, each with its own field of
usefulness. Until this is clearly realised it will be impossible to stay
the present sacrifice of life which has resulted, and must result,
from such obsolete procedures as induction of premature labour,
prophylactic turning, high forceps, and perforation. It is only a
matter of a few years before all these methods will be viewed with
the utmost abhorrence. Not only will it be considered criminal to
perforate the head of a living child, but to permit one to die because
of delay in delivery or from obsolete methods will rightly be
condemned. Symphysiotomy or pubiotomy is to be highly
Irish obstetricians from the 1940s similarly emphasised the limitations of
symphysiotomy, and identified its best usage. Although there were no agreed clinical
guidelines, it was repeatedly stated that its principal use was as an emergency
intervention in very specific cases of disproportion that emerged, for the most part,
during delivery: in effect, the indications for symphysiotomy could only truly be
determined during labour. Even Arthur Barry, who was an active proponent of the
procedure, proposed its use only in labour:
181 Master of the Rotunda Hospital.
182 ‘Modern Methods of Delivery in Contracted Pelvis’ in Proceedings of the Royal Society of
Medicine, 1910: 3 (Obstetrics and Gynaecology Section).
When should the operation be performed? The answer to this is
comparatively simple. The operation should be carried out: (a) in all
young primigravidae183 with pelvic contraction undergoing trial
labour when the natural powers are failing to overcome the
obstruction; (b) in all multigravidae184 with disproportion sufficient to
cause obstruction; (c) in all cases of failed forceps due to
contracted outlet if the child is alive; (d) in face presentation with the
chin posterior and in brow presentation, where efforts at correction
have failed; (e) in all young primigravidae with contracted pelvis
selected for trial labour in whom early rupture of the membranes or
inertia occurs. In such cases it is better to do the operation too early
than too late, as delay may result in loss of the baby. The operation
should not be employed unless the true conjugate185 is at least 8.5
centimetres. Size and moulding of the foetal head may occasionally
alter this rule.186
Predicting likely difficulties in labour is, and always has been, an inexact science. As
Prof. C. Scott Russell of Sheffield noted in 1951 when discussing diagnoses of
disproportion ‘…most of us I suppose use the term to describe a state of affairs in
which the normal course of labour is likely to be, or is, disturbed because of
insufficient room in the birth canal for the passage of the foetus. Such a definition
draws immediate attention to the fact that we cannot always tell if labour is to be
upset because of supposed disproportion until after the labour is over. We can be
wise after the event: in our speciality this is not very helpful.’187 Many women with
histories of uncomplicated deliveries suffer complications in later labours, and vice
versa. Thus undertaking an operation that interfered with the skeletal structure was a
serious decision, a fact underpinned by its use in Ireland in relatively small numbers
183 A woman who is pregnant for the first time.
184 A woman who is pregnant and has been pregnant at least twice before.
185 In obstetrics this is defined as ‘the shortest pelvic diameter through which the foetal head must
pass during birth, measured from the promontory of the sacrum to a point a few millimeters from the
top of the pubic symphysis’ (The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, 2007). An accurate
measurement is crucial in cases of symphysiotomy, as this is the single most important factor in
determining its employment. A smaller conjugate would indicate a caesarean section rather than a
186 Arthur P. Barry, ‘Symphysiotomy or Pubiotomy: Why? When? And How?’ in The Irish Journal of
Medical Science Sixth Series, No. 314, February 1952, pp 50-51.
187 ‘Transactions’ in Irish Journal of Medical Science, 9th October, 1951, p. 1022.
of mothers. In the review of modern literature undertaken for this report, only material
published in international scientific journals, with verifiable statistics and clear
methodologies, was used to assess the procedure. Thus the publications represent
peer-reviewed, scientifically credible research, and not speculative reviews. No
author in these papers proposes prophylactic symphysiotomy, nor any equivalent to
symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’.188 All deal with its value in emergency deliveries,
especially in cases of cephalopelvic disproportion. There are additional specific
circumstances under which the procedure offers the best chance of saving the
baby’s life, and the rapid delivery of a breech baby, whose head is trapped at the last
moment, is one strong indication.189 This is described as the ‘most dreaded
complication of the breech vaginal delivery’, because of the lack of time to save the
baby, and occurs in approximately one in every five hundred breech deliveries.190 A
similar emergency indication is in cases of shoulder dystocia,191 where problems
arise after the head has been delivered.192 These cases, in addition to the well-
established application in disproportion, justify a clinical decision to use
symphysiotomy. As a recent Indian study emphatically states: ‘Symphysiotomy
should only be done in an established case of obstructed labour but not in
anticipation of obstructed labour.’193 Mid-century obstetricians were aware of the
appropriate conditions for the use of symphysiotomy. In successive Royal Academy
of Medicine Transactions, and severally in the Dublin hospital reports, there was
188 Belgian obstetricians had reported on prophylactic symphysiotomy in the 1930s. See Bjorklund,
Minimally Invasive surgery, p. 241.
189 A discussion of the possible role of symphysiotomy in breech deliveries in Canada indicates the
relatively rare, but potentially fatal, case of ‘entrapment of the aftercoming head.’ ‘In more than 30
years of obstetric practice, I am unaware of a symphysiotomy ever having been carried out in a
hospital or region where I have served. At the same time, I am aware of only two instances of
entrapment of the aftercoming head during vaginal breech delivery in those same centres, and the
newborn outcomes were tragic.’ The article considers the possible use of symphysiotomy in these
exceptional circumstances in Canada, where a sophisticated medical system should eliminate long-
term health risks to the mother. David Young, ‘Why Vaginal Breech Delivery Should Still Be Offered’
in Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 2006, Vol 28, No. 5, pp. 386-89.
190 Savas Menticoglou, ‘Symphysiotomy for the Trapped Aftercoming Parts of the Breech: a review
of the literature and a plea for its use’ in The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics &
Gynaecology, Vol. 30 No. 1, pp. 1-9.
191 An obstetrical emergency that occurs when the anterior (the front) shoulder of the baby becomes
lodged behind the superior symphysis pubis, preventing further delivery. Shoulder dystocia is not
always preventable, and is usually not recognized until after the head has been delivered, and gentle
downward traction of the fetal head fails to accomplish delivery. It is believed to occur in
approximately 2% of deliveries.
192 T.Murphy Goodwin, Erika Banks, Lynnae K. Millar & Jeffrey P. Phelan, ‘Catastrophic Shoulder
Dystocia and Emergency Symphysiotomy’ in American Journal of Obstetetrics and Gynaecology,
1997, Vol. 177, pp. 463–4.
193 A.P. Choudhury, B. Bhadra & A. Roy, ‘Practical Symphysiotomy: an overview’ in Journal of the
Indian Medical Association August 2010, vol. 108, No. 8, pp. 503-4.
agreement regarding the limited conditions under which it should be performed: it
was a response to an emergency situation. Although disproportion might be
suspected, the generally accepted policy, expressed through the ‘Transactions’, was
to ‘wait and see’. If labour failed to advance, then it would be clearer as to whether
symphysiotomy or caesarean section was indicated.
The Rotunda performed very few symphysiotomies. Although not under the control
of avowedly Catholic Masters in this period, the patients were predominantly
Catholic, and the broad medical philosophy similar to that of the Coome and the
NMH. The problems of disproportion and obstructed labour facing the other two
hospitals were shared by the Rotunda, and were a constant source of anxious
discussion. While successive Masters expressed more overt concern regarding
symphysiotomy, it was the Rotunda that explored the procedure ‘on the way out’
before the other Dublin hospitals, and employed it to a greater extent, albeit in tiny
proportionate numbers. In 1952 for example there were seven symphysiotomies at
the Rotunda, all ‘performed at Caesarean section to facilitate vaginal delivery in
future pregnancies.’194 One of the hospital’s obstetricians, Hugo McVey, published a
paper in 1955 entitled ‘The Treatment of Disproportion by Combined Lower Segment
Section with Symphysiotomy’.195 In his opening summary of the procedure in Ireland
and elsewhere, he notes the key concern regarding caesarean section for
disproportion (‘This decision, while overcoming the difficulty of the present
pregnancy, makes no provision for any future pregnancy. The patient still has a
contracted pelvis, and, further, a uterine scar’), and then identifies Ireland’s unique
In this country we have the special circumstances of treating a
population in which sterilisation and contraception are not practiced.
Thus a young primigravida delivered by Caesarean section for
disproportion faces a lifetime of repeat operations with all the
hazards of uterine rupture, adhesions and bladder injury. In gross
disproportion Caesarean section is unquestionably correct, but in
minor or medium degrees of disproportion if symphysiotomy allows
194 ‘Clinical Report of the Rotunda Hospital for 1952’, p. 27.
195 Irish Journal of Medical Science, 1955, pp. 299-307.
of vaginal delivery on this and all other subsequent pregnancies, it
is surely the operation of choice.
The paper went on to describe a series of eight ‘combined’ operations at the
Rotunda. Because it was performed after the section and the delivery of the
baby there was no measurable increase in the diameter of the pelvis, as labour
had not caused the symphysis to stretch. ‘No ambulatory or gynaecological
difficulty was encountered’ in any of the cases, and four of the women went on to
have normal vaginal deliveries (the other four had not had a subsequent
pregnancy by the time the paper was published). McVey proposed the combined
procedure as a means of avoiding a traumatic, possibly failed, vaginal delivery in
the present pregnancy (by delivering through caesarean section at an early
stage), and facilitating delivery in any future pregnancy. The article is important
in that it is an attempt to face the reality of successive pregnancies, and the
problems of repeat sections. In one of the cases, McVey notes that the patient
subsequently delivered a larger baby without difficulty, owing to the fact that the
symphysis separated ‘to about two fingers’ breadth’, and ‘closed again after the
child was born. No gynaecological or ambulatory disturbance occurred after
But there is an inherent difficulty in his approach. He criticises prophylactic
symphysiotomy on the grounds that disproportion cannot be determined without
labour: ‘It is easy to diagnose a minor degree of disproportion at 38 weeks,
perform an immediate symphysiotomy and await a vaginal delivery two weeks
later. If the patient then has a vaginal delivery, what has been proved? Precisely
nothing. The question will still be asked: “How do you know she couldn’t have
had a vaginal delivery without symphysiotomy?” A question to which there is no
answer, because there has been no trial of labour before symphysiotomy.’ But
the combined operation is in part a prophylactic procedure, as although the
present delivery indicated disproportion, the next might not.196 A symphysiotomy
performed during labour, when moderate disproportion is proven, may be
justified as a means of saving mother and child and avoiding the risk of section,
196 The chances of disproportion in subsequent deliveries was high, as the numbers of repeat
caesarean sections for the condition indicated.
but undertaken after delivery, almost certainly without consultation or consent,
In the same year, J.K. Feeney, Master of the Coombe Hospital, published a lengthy
review of symphysiotomy, and laid down the following recommendations and
It is said that symphysiotomy has its best application in those
centres in which sterilization is not practiced after 3 or more
Caesarean sections. This may be so, but the field of application
should be far wider and determined by the fact that, in the well
chosen case, the operation overcomes dystocia and leaves a
permanently enlarged pelvis for the future; that it is safe and easy
to perform and that there are no unpleasant after-effects in
locomotion, pelvic instability, urinary control, etc. Let me make it
clear initially that the case for symphysiotomy should be carefully
selected and that the employment of the operation should not be
overdone. The general indication is provided by the case of minor
or moderate disproportion…Symphysiotomy has no place in the
treatment of major disproportion…the most satisfactory and
satisfying indication is disproportion with larger foetus in the
multipara…the course of labour is on these lines: the patient
advances until the cervix is as dilated as it can become under the
circumstances i.e. it admits the hand or half-hand with a palpable
rim all around. The presenting head is unengaged with the vertex,
bearing caput, projecting into the brim. The patient is bearing
down and the attendant believes that the uterus may rupture if the
obstruction is not relieved. The foetus appears to be larger than
previous ones. In such a case, symphysiotomy results in easy
spontaneous delivery. The baby is often born within a few minutes,
as the patient is recovering from the anaesthetic…I have on a few
occasions rapidly performed symphysiotomy when I encountered
difficulty in extracting the aftercoming head [in breech deliveries]
but I do not recommend this procedure because in one’s haste the
bladder might be injured. Symphysiotomy is an operation which
should be performed deliberately and methodically…My
experience of prophylactic symphysiotomy is limited to 7 cases
which worked out satisfactorily, but I do not ordinarily recommend
it. The average patient should have the benefit of a carefully
supervised trial of labour…I do not present symphysiotomy mainly
as an alternative to Caesarean Section. In point of fact, the
indications for and scope of section have been extended in this
hospital during my scope in office…At least 60 patients have
returned for easy vaginal delivery after previous
Although no clinical guidelines existed for the use of symphysiotomy, there was a
general consensus of opinion as to best practice, both in mid-century, and today,
which exclude its use in combination with caesarean section. Our Lady of Lourdes
Hospital also used symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’. Of a total of 160 cases of the
procedure between 1960 and 1969, 14 were symphysiotomies combined with
caesarean section (‘on the way out’ was not used at Our Lady’s after 1969, according
to a statement by Connolly in the annual report for 1970-71).198
Issues of Consent:
The question of patient consent to symphysiotomy in Ireland has been raised.
Determining consent to symphysiotomy, or any other medical intervention, is highly
problematic. It is only in recent years that written consent to elective procedures has
become commonplace in Western medicine, and every responsible hospital
recognises that circumstances may arise during treatment that makes the securing
of consent impossible. If a patient is unconscious, in a life-threatening situation, or
labouring under significant mental distress that makes consent impossible, then
medical and nursing staff are placed in a position of significant responsibility with
regard to the most appropriate treatment for the patient. Guidelines governing
informed consent (best articulated in the case of intellectually disabled patients)
197 J.K. Feeney, ‘Clinical Report of the Coombe Lying-In Hospital for 1955’ in Irish Journal of Medical
198 Our Lady of Lourdes Maternity Hospital, Clinical Reports, 1960-1984.
pertain largely to non-emergency, elective procedures, and are of comparatively
recent date. Surprisingly, there is still no legal requirement in Ireland to obtain written
consent to medical procedures,199 and outside of mental health, no clear standards
for securing medical consent: ‘In general, valid consent must be informed consent.
The law is not clear on exactly how much information a doctor must give a patient.
Consent is now legally defined for the purposes of psychiatric treatment but not for
During the period under review, consent for obstetric procedures was not sought in
any coherent manner: consent was implied, and the obstetrician presumed to be
working in the best interests of the patient. It is impossible to determine from this
historic distance whether patients were informed when a symphysiotomy was about
to be performed201, or if they were made aware of potential long-term health risks.
Given both the emergency conditions under which the procedure was normally
conducted, as well as the hierarchial nature of medical practice in the 1950s and
‘60s, it is unlikely that patients were consulted to any significant degree. In this
period, there were no guidelines in Britain or Ireland for obtaining consent to medical
procedures, although consent was implied on voluntary admission to hospital. This
situation continued well into the late twentieth century, as the controversy over the
standards in paediatric care in Britain, which resulted in the Bristol Inquiry,
indicated.202 This far-reaching and lengthy Inquiry investigated the care and
treatment of children with cardiac illness at Bristol Royal Infirmary between 1984 and
1995. The final report was published in 2001, and represents one of the most
thorough and far-reaching investigations into modern medical practice, across a wide
range of issues including consent, communication, patient-doctor relationships, and
responsibility. It found that even in the late 1990s, there was no formal method, or
199 ‘Apart from certain treatments carried out under the Mental Health Act 2001, there is no legal
requirement to obtain written consent, but it is generally considered good practice to make some
record of the consenting process.’ Medical Protection Society, Consent to Medical Treatment in
Ireland: A Guide for Clinicians 2011.
200 ‘Consent to Medical and Surgical Procedures’, The Citizen’s Advice Bureau, 2010.
201 In the case of symphysiotomy ‘on the way out’ consent was not sought as the patient was under
202 There were many key findings in the inquiry, not the least relevant of which was no. 7 in the
summary report: ‘It is an account of a time when there was no agreed means of assessing the quality
of care. There were no standards for evaluating performance. There was confusion throughout the
NHS as to who was responsible for monitoring the quality of care.’ Bristol Royal Infirmary Final Report
Summary, Learning from Bristol: the report of the public inquiry into children’s heart surgery at the
Bristol Royal Infirmary 1984 -1995 Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Health by
Command of Her Majesty, July 2001.
imperative, to secure patient or family consent to medical procedures. Prior to the
Bristol Report, consent in Britain was vaguely defined, with the first important legal
engagement with the issue of consent occurring in 1954. A case for medical
negligence was taken by a patient named John Hector Bolam for injuries received
during a course of Electro Convulsive Treatment, and this resulted in a landmark
decision that governed standards of care for decades. Although it was originally
concerned with medical negligence, it became the basis of consent in Britain for
medical intervention. The original judgement determined that if a standard of care
received professional peer acceptance, it was a valid course of treatment: ‘It follows
that if a medical practice is supported by a responsible body of peers, then the
Bolam test is satisfied and the practitioner has met the required standard of care in
law.’203 Once this is established, consent, especially in the mid-twentieth century, is
In Ireland, the fundamental principle underpinning medical intervention is informed
consent. This is supported by a series of relatively recent judgements and
guidelines204 that stress the necessity for patient understanding of the implications of
a course of treatment, and an agreement to it. Failure to secure consent (ideally in
writing, although verbal agreement to a course of treatment is also valid) could
potentially lead to a charge of assault against the medical staff conducting treatment.
However, the area remains highly problematic, with a recognition by the courts that
patients may by reason of illness, pain or stress be temporarily incapable of the
cognitive understanding necessary for consent. One of the earliest relevant rulings
on principles of consent was in 1965, in the case of Ryan V Attorney General. This
case, brought over the addition of fluoride to the public water supply, resulted in an
influential series of subsequent judgements regarding
…[the] constitutional right to bodily integrity in the case of Ryan v
Attorney General  IR294. What this means is that every
person has the right to object to any form of bodily interference or
restraint. The principle forms the legal underpinning to the concept
203 Ash Samanta & Jo Samanta, ‘Legal Standard of Care: a shift from the traditional Bolam Test’ in
Clinical Medicine, Vol 3, No. 5, September/October 2003, pp. 443-6.
204 See the Medical Council’s A Guide to Ethical Conduct and Behaviour (5th Edition, Dublin, 1998).
that every patient must consent to any form of medical
intervention. Subsequent to this decision, it is therefore a legal
requirement that consent is obtained for all aspects of medical
treatment: from examination, diagnosis and treatment. In Walsh v
Family Planning Services Limited  1 IR 496, the Supreme
Court emphasises the right to bodily integrity as an important
constitutional right that will give rise to an action by patients for
assault or battery if a medical procedure is carried out without their
consent. Such consent can be expressly given or it may be implied
[Brazier, 1992]. It is possible in some scenarios to imply consent
from a patient’s conduct or behaviour, for example, consent can be
implied by virtue of a patient holding out his or her arm for an
injection. Implied consent as a valid and genuine consent is
recognised by both the courts and by the medical profession.205
The 2008 Fitzpatrick & Anor v K & Anor judgement clarifies a medical practitioner’s
responsibilities regarding informed consent and sets out the test of capacity that
should be applied.206 But these judgements are of limited use, and the law is
necessarily non-specific with regard to consent, given the circumstances under
which medical treatment may take place. Medical emergencies often require
immediate action on the part of health professionals, and patients may not be in a
position to provide consent. Moreover, there is a general acceptance in Irish law of
the principle of implied consent, which exists by virtue of the patient attending, for
example, a general practitioner for treatment. Consent, implicit or explicit, was not
required for medical interventions in the 1940s and ‘50s, and although there was an
increasing awareness of its importance after 1965, it was not legally required.
Securing consent has become the norm in Ireland from the late 1990s, but is still not
a legal requirement except in relation to mental health. Many branches of the
205 Brenda Daly, ‘Patient Consent, the Anaesthetic Nurse and the Peri-operative Environment: Irish
Law and Informed Consent’ in British Journal of Anaesthetic & Recovery Nursing 2009, Vol. 10(1), p.
206 Fitzpatrick & Anor V K & Anor  IEHC104.
profession have put in place guidelines and recommendations in order to improve
the quality of patient care, but these are not legally binding.207
The use of symphysiotomy from the mid 1940s to approximately 1965 was a specific
response to exceptional Irish circumstances. An extraordinarily high fertility rate
combined with a ban on artificial contraception meant that married Irishwomen faced
multiple pregnancies in swift succession. The hospital maternal mortality rate had
fallen dramatically by the 1940s, and Irish post-war obstetricians, in common with
their British counterparts, became increasingly interventionist in labour. However,
they faced particular problems that differed from the UK. An Irish mother with
contracted pelvis did not have the option of limiting her family through artificial
contraception, in the manner that was legally possible for her British counterpart.
Although many in the medical profession deplored the circumstances surrounding
incessant pregnancy and delivery, they, along with their patients, were constrained
by a rigid system that took little account of the often intolerable physical, emotional
and financial strain that large numbers of children placed upon families. The legal
restrictions regarding family limitation options ensured that symphysiotomy was
explored as a means of addressing obstructed labour, in an era when the relative
safety of repeat caesarean sections was unproven, and sections carried a high
mortality and morbidity rate. This is the context in which symphysiotomy reappeared
in Irish obstetrics. It was always a controversial development. Although some
obstetricians heralded it as a solution to a wide range of difficulties in labour, others
refused to contemplate it because of fears of both short and long-term
consequences including incontinence and pelvic instability. These reservations are
reflected in the fact that even when use of the procedure was at its height in the mid
1950s, it remained a rare event relative to overall deliveries, and was never utilised
in all maternity hospitals throughout the country. In cases of mild to moderate
disproportion, leading to obstructed delivery, symphysiotomy was an appropriate
207 AIMS (Association for the Improvement in Maternity services) Ireland is working with HIQA (the
Health Information and Quality Authority) to draw up guidelines for the improvement of maternity
services, which will have consent to medical procedures and treatment at its core.
Symphysiotomy began to decline from the late 1950s. The period marked significant
advances in maternity care and maternal health, and saw an increasing use of
caesarean section to deal with obstructed labour, the main indication for
symphysiotomy. As the safety of repeat sections became clear, their numbers
increased steadily, and symphysiotomies declined. However, Our Lady of Lourdes
Hospital in Drogheda continued to use the procedure until 1984, almost twenty years
after it had largely ceased elsewhere in Ireland. The other area of concern is the use
of symphysiotomy immediately after caesarean section, which is not recognised as
good practice in the past or present.
Symphysiotomy was reintroduced in certain Irish hospitals in the 1940s, and
was a clinical response to the legal limitations on contraception, and
sterilisation for contraceptive purposes. This restrictive legislation reflected a
predominantly Catholic religious ethos, which determined that contraception
and sterilisation for the prevention of pregnancy was both illegal and
unacceptable. Its use reflected the fact that in the 1940s and ‘50s the safety of
repeat caesarean sections was unproven.
It was used in the majority of cases as an emergency response to obstructed
labour, in women suffering from mild to moderate disproportion, and as such
was an appropriate clinical intervention.
It was never proposed as an alternative to caesarean section, rates of which
rose steadily in the 1950s and ‘60s.
It was a safer intervention in cases of mild to moderate disproportion, with a
minimal maternal mortality rate, and a lower foetal mortality rate, than
It was an exceptional intervention, used on average in 0.36% of deliveries in
the Coombe and National Maternity Hospitals, where the usage was highest.
Its use was continually evaluated and debated, and declined as maternal
health, and caesarean delivery safety rates, improved.
It appears to have been inappropriately used in a number of cases. These
relate to ‘symphysiotomy on the way out’, when it was performed after
delivery, while the mother was being stitched following caesarean section.
The persistence of the procedure at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda
until 1984 runs contrary to its decline elsewhere in the country from the mid1960s.
Recommendations will be made following the completion of the consultation process,
as the second stage in this report process.
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