Olivia Kearney awarded 450,000 euros in hospital damages

High Court Dublin
Image caption The High Court was told it had seriously damaged her psychological health

An Irish woman who was the victim of "grave medical malpractice" has been awarded damages of 450,000 euros.

Olivia Kearney had her pelvis cut to make it larger, in a process known as a symphysiotomy.

The operation was carried out at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda in October 1969 after the birth of her first child who was born by Caesarean section.

The High Court heard it had seriously damaged her psychological health.

Mrs Kearney, who was 18 at the time, had her son delivered by Caesarean section on 19 October.

Six days later, Dr Gerard Connolly, since deceased, carried out the symphysiotomy.

The judge found the evidence did not establish that Dr Connolly had followed general and approved practice of the time.

Dr Connolly's medical notes at the time did not even contain the essential medical justification for symphysiotomy.

It was found there was no need for the symphysiotomy because subsequent measurements indicated Ms Kearney's pelvis was normal and there was therefore no need to enlarge the pelvis.

Mrs Kearney, of Castlebellingham, County Louth, sued the hospital owners, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who denied her claims and contended the procedure was justified in the circumstances at the time.

Legal action

She did not know she had had a symphysiotomy until nearly 33 years later when she heard women on a radio programme discussing the issue.

Mrs Kearney took legal action in 2002, but it was struck out by the High Court after the hospital raised the length of the delay in Mrs Kearney in bringing the proceedings.

She successfully appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Marie O'Connor, chairperson of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, said in the vast majority of cases, women had no knowledge and were given no information prior to the surgery, nor were they told anything about it by hospital staff before they were discharged.

"Doctors believed performing a symphysiotomy would essentially avert the need for future Caesarean sections," she said.

"They were hostile to the idea of Caesareans because they associated it with the practice of birth control.

"One could only have so many Caesarean sections, so in effect carrying out a Caesarean capped the number of children a woman could have. Generallly three or four sections was the upper safety limit."

Ms O'Connor said many women had told her that after their surgery was performed, they were told by their doctor that they could now have nine or 10 children.

"In some cases the operation was followed by sterility because women were so frightened, so traumatised by the whole experience that they could never again bring themselves to have a child and the plaintiff in this case, Olivia Kearney was one of those," she said.

"Up to 1,500 of these operations were performed here from the mid-1940s to late the 1980s. Ireland is the only country in the developed world to practise this surgery in the latter half of the 20th century."