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The black area marked by a "5" is the pubic symphysis, which is divided during the procedure
Symphysiotomy is a surgical procedure in which the cartilage of the pubic symphysis is divided to widen the pelvis allowing childbirth when there is a mechanical problem. It is also known as pelviotomy, synchondrotomy,, pubiotomy, and Gigli's operation after Leonardo Gigli, who invented a saw commonly used in Europe to accomplish the operation.
Symphysiotomy was advocated in 1597 by Severin Pineau after his description of a diastasis of the pubis on a hanged pregnant woman. Thus symphysiotomies became a routine surgical procedure for women experiencing an obstructed labour. They became less frequent in the late 19th century after the risk of maternal death post-caesarean section decreased due to improvement in techniques, hygiene, and clinical practice.
Indications for the procedure
The most common indications are a trapped head of a breech baby, shoulder dystocia which does not resolve with routine manoeuvres and obstructed labor at full cervical dilation when there is no option of a caesarean section. Currently the procedure is rarely performed in developed countries, but is still routine in developing countries where caesarean section is not always an option.
Symphysiotomy results in a temporary increase in pelvic diameter (up to 2 cm) by surgically dividing the ligaments of the symphysis under local anaesthesia. This procedure should be carried out only in combination with vacuum extraction. Symphysiotomy in combination with vacuum extraction can be a life-saving procedure in areas of the world where caesarean section is not feasible or immediately available. Since this procedure does not scar the uterus, the concern of future uterine rupture that exists with cesarean section is not a factor.
The procedure is not without risk, including urethral and bladder injury, infection, pain and long-term walking difficulty. Symphysiotomy should, therefore, be carried out only when there is no safe alternative. It is advised that this procedure should not be repeated due to the risk of gait problems and continual pain.
Abduction of the thighs more than 45 degrees from the midline may cause tearing of the urethra and bladder.
- Give appropriate analgesic drugs.
- Apply elastic strapping across the front of the pelvis from one iliac crest to the other to stabilize the symphysis and reduce pain.
- Leave the catheter in the bladder for a minimum of 5 days.
- Encourage the woman to drink plenty of fluids to ensure a good urinary output.
- Encourage bed rest for 7 days after discharge from hospital.
- Encourage the woman to begin to walk with assistance when she is ready to do so.
If long-term walking difficulties and pain are reported (occur in 2% of cases), treat with physical therapy.
Dr Alex Spain was master of the National Maternity Hospital during the mid-20th century, and performed many symphysiotomies during his tenure. Spain's successor, Arthur Barry, was devout catholic and fervent supporter of the practice of symphysiotomy.
In 2002, Survivor Matilda Behan and her daughter, Bernadette, set up an advocacy group for victims, Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SoS). Matilda was operated upon at NMH with a circular saw 17 days before her baby was born. She thought she was being brought to theatre for a Caesarean section. No one told her the plan was to do the 'new procedure' - pubiotomy In 2008, the Irish Human Rights Commission recommended that the Government should reconsider its decision not to set up an independent inquiry into symphysiotomy. The Minister for Health refused.
On 18 February 2010, a RTE Prime Time documentary revealed that, over half a century, some 1,500 women had symphysiotomies performed on them in childbirth by doctors to ensure childbearing without limitation, train medical personnel and perfect the surgery for Africa. Following the programme, victims of the procedure called on the Minister for Health, Mary Harney to initiate an independent inquiry. Minister for Health Mary Harney refused to hold an inquiry. Instead, the Minister commissioned the IOG, a training body, to inquire into itself by reviewing operations carried out by some of its own members for teaching purposes.
A Dáil debate on the issue was heard on 15 March 2012, which was organised by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. Leading the debate in the Dáil, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin compared symphysiotomy to clerical abuse: "The infliction of symphysiotomy on women in Ireland is one of the greatest medical scandals not only here but on an international scale. Symphysiotomy is a clinical scandal on a par with the clerical scandals we have seen exposed in the past two decades." Gerry Adams described the procedure as "institutional abuse involving acts of butchery against women." While Clare Daly declared that "it is an important acknowledgment by the State of the crimes committed against many of the women present today, crimes which led to the suffering endured by them and their families for decades".
Eight days later, on 23 March 2012, a County Louth woman, Olivia Kearney, who was subjected to a post Caesarean-section symphysiotomy, which was performed by Dr Gerard Connolly, was awarded €450,000 by the High Court. The Kearney case was appealed to the Irish Supreme Court, which found in favour of Miss Kearney and declared that symphysiotomy was not a generally approved obstetric practice in 1969. While the Supreme Court reduced the award of damages from €450,000 to €325,000, the decision represented the first public condemnation of the practice of symphysiotomy by an institution of the Irish state.
In June 2012, details of the Walsh draft report on the use of this procedure in Ireland were released. The report by Prof. Oonagh Walsh (UCC) found that although symphysiostomies were phased out in most medical institutions across the country, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital was practising the procedure up until the early 1980s. The draft Walsh report nevertheless found that symphysiotomy was justifiable and sought to consult with survivors on her findings.
The draft Walsh report was criticised by victims' advocate group Survivors of Symphysiotomy, opposition TDs and journalists for failing to adequately address issues such as patient consent, and for perceivably justifying the performance of the operation. Survivors of Symphysiotomy members subsequently decided to boycott the second stage of the Walsh report.
Also in June 2012, Survivors of Symphysiotomy testified publicly before the Joint Oireachtas (Select) Committee on Justice. Catherine McKeever, a private patient at the Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda in 1969, told the Committee that she did not realise what had happened: 'I saw him [the doctor] with an instrument which I thought was a bit brace because my father was a wood turner. I felt a crack ... Nobody answered me or said anything'. Margaret Conlan, who was operated upon in 1962 in St Finbarr's Hospital, Cork, testified that she had never been told anything about it: 'My baby’s head was perforated and the baby died... I did not find out [about the symphysiotomy] until I read it in the newspaper'.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin introduced the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill, which was unanimously supported by Dáil on 17 April 2013. The proposed legislation sought to lift the statute of limitations for a period of one year, to enable all survivors of symphysiotomy to bring their cases through the Irish courts. By July 2013, the Bill had stalled before the Joint Oireachtas (Select) Committee on Justice, leading SoS to protest outside the Parliament on 26 June
In November 2013, Minister for Health, James Reilly announced that Judge Yvonne Murphy had been appointed to review the findings of the Walsh report, to meet with survivors of symphysiotomy, hospital authorities and insurers with a view to deciding on whether an ex gratia redress scheme would be preferred to allowing legal actions to proceed. The terms of reference for the Murphy inquiry were criticised by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin stating that the "type of scheme outlined in the terms of reference offers the women no prospect of adequate compensation for what was so barbarically done to them nor the choice to pursue their rights in the courts". It also emerged that the Government would no longer support the SoS statute of limitations bill, which had been unanimiously adopted by the Dáil in April 2013. SoS rejected the Government's statement and described their plans as 'paternalistic'.
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Symphysiotomy - A Brutal Practice. A ground-breaking documentary from Primetime, RTÉ Television, 18/02/2010, http://www.rte.ie/news/av/2011/0621/media-2704182.html#&search=Brutal . Which revealed for the first time that up to 1500 procedures were carried out in Ireland. Morrissey, J. The Murder of Infants? Symphysiotomy in Ireland 1944-66 in History Ireland Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012) Vol 20, at http://www.historyireland.com/volumes/vol20/?id=115568