‘Symphysiotomy Has Never Been Promoted By The Catholic Church’

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Fr Vincent Twomey on RTÉ’s Prime Time in 2012

Contrary to the claims made by Dylan Tighe (May 7th), symphysiotomy is not, and never has been, a procedure promoted by the Catholic Church.

It was an exceptionally rare medical procedure (accounting for 0.05 deliveries out of every hundred) used until the danger of infection caused by Caesarean section was, thanks to the development of antibiotics, removed, except at Our Lady’s of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, where it was used until the mid-1980s.

According to the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2010/2012), the technique is still taught “as an emergency procedure on the ‘Management of Obstetric Emergencies and Trauma’ course of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, London, which many consultants and trainees have attended”.

While it is true that in 1948 Dr Alex Spain, a master of the National Maternity Hospital, did reference what he called the Catholic “rule” on contraception and sterilisation as one of several justifications for resorting to symphysiotomy in a tiny minority of births, it is simply not true to say that this procedure was used mainly for reasons that had to do with Catholic teaching, much less that the procedure was promoted by the Catholic Church or by Catholic moral theologians.

In the moral theology textbooks I consulted, old or recent, it was not even mentioned.

The ethos of religious-run hospitals in Ireland is something to be proud of. That ethos is often reduced to Catholic ethics with regard to what are now called reproductive issues. But Catholic ethos is much more than matters relating to bioethics.

It is founded on a life-long commitment to God by serving those in need, a practice that goes back to the origins of Christianity as inspired by Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46).

The most evident manifestation of a true Catholic ethos and innovation is the hospice movement, founded in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, in 1879 by the Irish Religious Sisters of Charity and then spread throughout the world.

Pioneers in the care of the sick and suffering in Africa were, and are, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who founded and run Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Little recognition is given to their selfless dedication to sick at home and abroad.

Thousands of Irish religious, mostly but not exclusively female, have given their entire lives to care for the sick and suffering. Their “influence . . . over the care of patients” does not deserve to be described, quoting Mr Tighe, as “vile and scandalous”.

Dare I remind Mr Tighe – and others who are allowed to rant on about “religious-run”, “taxpayer-funded hospitals” – that Irish Catholics are also taxpayers?

Rev Dr D Vincent Twomey, SVD
Professor Emeritus of Theology,
Maynooth,
Co Kildare.

Right so.

National Maternity Hospital and Ethos (Irish Times)

Previously: ‘In The Interest Of Patient Safety’

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25 thoughts on “‘Symphysiotomy Has Never Been Promoted By The Catholic Church’

  1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

    “In the moral theology textbooks I consulted, old or recent, it was not even mentioned.”

    Oh, well if THAT’S the case, then obviously it must be the case.
    Nothing to see here.

    1. Nigel

      It’s weird, symphysiotomies have been connected with the Catholic Church, or at least with Catholcism all along, but I’ve never seen anyone articulate what the connection is – though consulting old and new moral theology textbooks seems like a fairly limited way to go exploring whether a specific medical/religious ethos held sway and for how long. The question is WHY did these doctors keep practising it after it had been supplanted with better procedures? Maybe this has been explored somewhere in detail and I just haven’t read it?

      1. fmong

        http://www.thejournal.ie/a-history-of-symphysiotomy-the-impact-of-catholic-ethics-on-irish-medicine-685296-Nov2012/

        The idea is that if you performed symphysiotomies would a) avoid cesarean and the risks associated, and it would be ‘easier’ for women to have more children, thus more little soldiers for God.. the cost/risk to the woman was secondary.

        I’ve always felt if you take the Irish Catholic’s church main motivator is to keep numbers in Church up things like symphysiotomies, their abortion law and the removal of the ability to opt out (countmeout.ie – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CountMeOut.ie) become clearer in motive.. it’s all a numbers game. So long as they can keep the impression that they’re in the majority in Ireland, they can carry on their influence in society.

        It’s hard to come up with another reason for symphysiotomies in modern times

        1. mildred st. meadowlark

          That’s awful reading. It frightens me that this was such a commonly held ethos. When I was pregnant with my little one, she and I would have died without a c-section. It’s a necessary procedure that can save lives. Symphesiotomy is not.

      2. Medium Sized C

        The answer could just be Medical Inertia.
        Which is a thing that happens.
        I know a girl who was refused a prescription for the Pill in college, because the Doctor did not believe that it worked. This was in the mid-naughties.

        As to the earlier point, I worry it is just a case of

        “Involves Old medical stuff” + “Is bad” = “BURN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH”.

        1. Nigel

          In fairness, they’re drawing a fairly clear connection between the procedure and the catholcism of the medical ethos. There may be inertia but it was a catholic conservative inertia.

        2. Mark Dennehy

          The minor problem with the medical inertia argument is that the procedure was *introduced*. As opposed to having been about for millennia and just not being abolished.

          1. Dylan Tighe

            that paragraph on page 8 futher completely demolishes his argument. Would be great if you could respond to I.T citing this. thanks for passing this on

  2. Dylan Tighe

    symphysiotomy is inextricable from Catholic ethos as it was performed instead of c-sections – the belief being that c-sections would reduce the amount of further children a women would give birth two. So, bizarrely, sawing the pelvis in half was seen as preferable.

    This from a guardian article : “Symphysiotomy was first used in the 19th century. As caesarean sections grew safer, the use of the operation declined in the developed world. But Alex Spain, the master of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital (NMH) until 1948, disapproved. According to Jacqueline Morrissey, a historian who began investigating the practice in the 1990s, it was Spain’s Catholic beliefs, not his medical judgment, that guided his actions. At the time, the established medical consensus was that having more than three caesarean sections was dangerous, and that further pregnancies would have to be stopped by sterilisation or contraception”

    My original letter to which Twomey responded is re-printed below:

    Sir, – In light of the continued religious interference in tax payer-funded hospitals let’s not forget another “clinically indicated” procedure promoted by the “ethos” of religious-run hospitals – symphysiotomy.
    No apology has ever been proffered for this gross abuse of women, and it beggars belief that religious bodies be permitted any influence whatsoever over the care of patients in light of their vile and scandalous record.

  3. Bertie Blenkinsop

    ‘Symphysiotomy Has Never Been Promoted By The Catholic Church’.

    Roberto Martinez is free now, he might do a a job for them…..

  4. Clo

    Ask the question whether symphysiotomy was ever performed on Protestant women in Ireland. It wasn’t. Ask how doctors justified this horrific practice: well, several of those subjected to it recalled doctors saying to them things along the lines of ‘I know you’re a Catholic and I know you’ll want more children’. Then ask whether ‘it is simply not true to say that this procedure was used mainly for reasons that had to do with Catholic teaching’. Though I absolutely agree that the Catholic religious orders have made significant positive contributions to other aspects of healthcare in Ireland and elsewhere.

  5. Starina

    Dare I remind Mr Tighe – and others who are allowed to rant on about “religious-run”, “taxpayer-funded hospitals” – that Irish Catholics are also taxpayers?

    And this is exactly why it was important to tick “no religion” on the census form.

  6. Clampers Outside!

    ” The ethos of religious-run hospitals in Ireland is something to be proud of. That ethos is often reduced to Catholic ethics with regard to what are now called reproductive issues. But Catholic ethos is much more than matters relating to bioethics.

    It is founded on a life-long commitment to God by serving those in need, a practice that goes back to the origins of Christianity as inspired by Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). ”

    So, beyond the procedures the church will not work on, what they bring to the table is ‘serving those in need’.

    How is this even accepted as a point of view. The church does NOT have a monopoly on empathy. Empathy is a human trait not a God given one, nor is morality. So, basically what the church is saying is anyone can do their job, but they’ve been at it for a long time, and interfering for a long time.
    So, why don’t they continue giving comfort to those that want it, and stay out of the running of hospitals.

    ” Dare I remind Mr Tighe – and others who are allowed to rant on about “religious-run”, “taxpayer-funded hospitals” – that Irish Catholics are also taxpayers? ”
    Dare I remind Fr Twomey, and other religious types who think their voice should always be “allowed to rant” on about Catholicism being allowed maintain restrictions on our tax payer funded hospitals that this is a secular society made up of ALL taxpayers, who are due ALL the care available and not just what the church deems necessary.

    1. some old queen

      @ Clampers. You are not paid by the word. Try this

      The Rev Dr D Vincent Twomey says that the ethos of religious-run hospitals in Ireland is something to be proud of.

      The ethos of religious-run hospitals in Ireland was for the most part to keep your mouth shut and mind your own business. Otherwise, what happened would not have happened.

  7. Mulder

    This priest should be a politican.
    Though suppose he already is.
    The politics of God and religion, the catholic sort again.

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