'No. I won’t go back’: National time, trauma and legacies of symphysiotomy in Ireland

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This paper is about Survivors of Symphysiotomy (S.O.S), a campaigning group which represents elderly women who were wrongfully subjected to a childbirth operation which unhinges the pelvis in Irish Catholic hospitals from the 1940s to the 1980s. These women have suffered lifelong physical, psychiatric and emotional consequences. S.O.S insists that doctors performed this operation on young women, against their will, without any medical justification, and for religiously-motivated reasons. The group has lobbied successive governments for over a decade, asking for a public inquiry into the structures of medical and religious power which enabled the operation to take hold, and for payment of appropriate compensation. The UN Human Rights Committee has confirmed the validity of S.O.S’s position in international human rights law. However, the Irish government has not met their demands, instead establishing an inaccessible and short-lived redress scheme, which offered limited financial payments to a small number of survivors, without admission of liability and without any substantial public investigation. S.O.S. have responded by encouraging some members to strategically boycott the scheme and instead to bring medical negligence actions against state hospitals in the civil courts. Their hope, in part, has been that the courts would act as sites for detailed interrogation of the circumstances in which individual symphysiotomies were performed; that they would obtain ‘statements of truth’. This paper frames the conflict between S.O.S. and the government as centring around competing renderings of national time. The Fine Gael government which has overseen the suppression of S.O.S’s claims has repeatedly presented itself as a responsible secularising force, which has dealt responsibly and efficiently with the ‘legacy issues’ of the state’s theocratic past (institutional child sexual abuse; the Magdalene Laundries; the Mother and Baby Homes) and made compassionate but prudent financial provision for its victims. Government delivers ‘closure’; ensuring that the past is moved beyond any substantive present responsibility to do justice (Butler). As part of this project, symphysiotomy is understood as a relic of an era safely past; undoubtedly wrong by today’s standards, but perfectly understandable according to the standards of an inaccessible different time. The confinement of symphysiotomy to the past allows the state to cleave to a certain rhetoric of inevitable upward social progress and to break the narrative link between symphysiotomy and related contemporary episodes of gender-based violence (obstetric violence, suffering caused by restrictive abortion laws etc). Government responses to S.O.S are marked by an absolute refusal to respond to symphysiotomy as ‘of the present’. The women of S.O.S, by their refusal to accept their place in this narrative - by insisting that their claims belong to the law of medical negligence and of torture rather than to historical redress - are ‘out of time’. They interrupt the homogenous empty time of the nation state (Benjamin), demonstrating its inherent instability (Braidiotti). They stubbornly prise open the gap between today and the yesterday of the nation (Latour). They disfigure the national narrative of overcoming the past, by insisting on holding the time zones of past wounding and present responsibility together (Braidiotti). Again and again in Ireland social progress has been worked out over women’s bodies and women’s reproductive experience. That happens again here. Because they are out of time, the women of S.O.S. are presented as misguided, and vulnerable in their appeal to the courts. Accordingly their claims are subjected to special modes of management. In particular, the state takes advantage of time-based legal techniques (deadlines for application to redress schemes, Statutes of Limitation, complex common law rules on prejudice and delay, modifications of the law on standards of care designed to protect defendants’ interests in historical cases).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw and Time
EditorsSian Benyon-Jones, Emily Grabham
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781315167695
ISBN (Print)9780415792219, 9780367665302
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018

Publication series

NameSocial Justice


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