Thursday, 15 March 2012
Seán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
I cannot say I am happy to be participating in this debate but I value the opportunity to contribute on a matter that should have been dealt with many years ago. Like other speakers, I acknowledge the presence in the Gallery of the women and their families who have been affected by this travesty that has been needlessly visited on them.
My first exposure to this issue was in 2009 when, as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, we heard a presentation in which Deputy Ó Caoláin was involved, as was the Minister, Deputy Reilly. I welcome the fact that the Minister remained in the Chamber for this important debate. In that presentation we heard reports from women that were harrowing. As a man, the thought of my mother, my sisters or my daughter experiencing the appalling, barbaric brutality these mothers experienced filled me with horror. What struck me most forcefully, however, was the dignity of the women and their families and their determination to work towards a solution to this problem in so far as any solution can be reached.
I acknowledge also that at that period the then Deputy Kathleen Lynch was very much to the fore in promoting awareness of this issue. I am conscious that as she is now a Minister of State in the Department of Health with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, who has an appreciation of the problems, we can all have a realistic expectation that this matter will be prioritised and action taken on it.
I compliment my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, on his recent initiative in bringing together the all-party group. As he stated last evening in the AV room, the idea of us acting in a collegiate way can do a great deal to resolve issues. I am minded of the Deputy's former constituency colleague, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, who had major experience in this area, both as a practitioner and as Minister for Health. He often stated in this House, and to me, that adversarial politics is very bad for public health. If we could have a more collegiate and collaborative approach to many of the issues on the health agenda we could work towards a solution for many of them in a more efficient and effective manner.
Like my colleague, Deputy Kelleher, I have no more than a layman's understanding of symphysiotomy. I accept it is a legitimate medical procedure but one that can be used in exceedingly rare medical circumstances. I understand for medical practitioners that in those exceedingly rare circumstances it has, on occasions, saved the lives of children and mothers. The problem we face is that in this country, most notably in three maternity hospitals, namely Holles Street, the Coombe and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, it was not used in very rare occasions, rather it was used with considerable frequency.
The Minister said symphysiotomy is not a barbaric act. In strict terms, he is correct. Amputation is not a barbaric act but the amputation of a healthy limb by a medical professional would be a barbaric act. What was perpetrated on these women needlessly, unnecessarily and with their knowledge was barbarism by medical professionals. It shocks us to the core to think it could have happened.
We commend the Minister for bringing in Dr. Oonagh Walsh and conducting a study. He indicated there are some legal difficulties in publishing it. We urge him to publish it as quickly as possible and ask the Attorney General to get on with the job of perusing it. We need another debate in the House immediately following its publication. It may well be that the solutions to the problem and the next steps are contained in the report. If they are, we will come together on an all-party basis and support the Minister in implementing them. If the report does not recommend the necessary actions, we will have to consider that.
Some reference has been made to the Catholic church and its possible influence on what happened. Any Catholic zealot who pursued these practices was no servant of the church and was not acting in a Christian manner. He or she should consider his or her position in terms of his or her view of Christianity and the church. The basic tenant is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
Given that the church has been brought into the debate, we should also consider whether the procedure was a feature of the medical arrogance and godlike authority that was given to people in the senior echelons of the Irish medical profession. The attitude was doctor knows, doctor says, doctor is always right and doctor cannot be challenged. One would hope we have moved a long way from that situation.
We have to openly and unambiguously say to the women that they were brutalised by the State and the State apologises unambiguously to them. In 2003 SOS met the then Minister Deputy Micheál Martin. Attempts were made in the aftermath of that meeting to provide a comprehensive suite of medical supports for the women affected.
A very good job appears to have been done in the north east. I have heard many positive comments about Ms Joanne White, the liaison officer in the area, and the manner in which she assists women to gain access to treatment, even alternative treatments which have been chosen by many women. Liaison officers should be available across the country, similar to the service available in the north east. Medical cards and access to all the necessary clinicians, clinical support, aids and equipment should be made available.
The issue of compensation inevitably arises in case like this. I live in a constituency where Army deafness claims were a major issue. I know many people who took games against the State arising out of its negligence and that of the military authorities in providing them with the safeguards they needed in order to not damage their hearing by gunfire. I compare what happened to those men and women with the invasive and brutal experiences of the women who underwent symphysiotomy. The problem arose not from negligence but was deliberately perpetrated upon them.
When one compares the two situations, one has to say the State has to offer a compensation package to the dwindling group of women who now need compensation to live out their lives in comfort. I understand €321 million was spent on the Irish Army deafness cases. A tiny fraction of that figure is required to address, in some small way, the suffering these ladies continue to experience on a daily basis. The Army deafness cases were obvious. The suffering of these women is somewhat invisible and not known to the public. It is to be hoped that after today's debate it will be known and understood.
This debate should be one of the final steps towards finding a solution to this challenge. I have confidence in the Minister. He has been fairly clear in his understanding of the issue, although we might disagree on some of the details. He knows the suffering people have endured. It rests with him and I am sure he will be encouraged by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to move the situation towards the sort of resolution we need. I urge him to do that as soon as possible and ensure we can have, at the earliest possible date, a follow-up debate in the House on the issue in order that the matter does not rest until the measures that meet the needs, demands and rights of the people affected are put in place.