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The Legacy of Symphysiotomy in Ireland: A Reproductive Justice Approach to Obstetric Violence

Reproduction, Health, and Medicine

ISBN: 978-1-78756-172-4, eISBN: 978-1-78756-171-7

Publication date: 22 November 2019


This chapter examines symphysiotomy in twentieth-century Ireland as one example of a systematized obstetric violence that has characterized Ireland’s modern history. Expanding scholarly interpretations of state- and Church-inflicted abuse of women in the twentieth century, this analysis establishes the medical profession as a central actor alongside the twentieth-century state-Church coalition that regulated women’s reproductive lives and engaged in systematic repression. This chapter recognizes that Ireland’s history of reproductive abuse and coercion did not just involve contraception or abortion but also labor and birth experiences. In addition, it offers a more complete and complex interpretation of obstetric violence by highlighting the experiences of married women with wanted pregnancies; almost all research to date focuses on the experiences of unmarried pregnant women or unwanted pregnancies. This examination of symphysiotomy and obstetric violence in Ireland illuminates the ways in which religious, national, and medical power has been mapped on women’s reproductive bodies, particularly in the decades after independence in 1922. It also makes essential links between Ireland’s past and present, demonstrating that a careful analysis of the history of obstetric violence and the religious underpinnings of it are essential in understanding Ireland today. With this research, we also place symphysiotomy within the context of the global reproductive justice movement, asking how a reproductive justice framework – one that links reproductive rights with social justice – can help us interpret obstetric violence and address the wounds of Ireland’s past.




The authors wish to thank the Fulbright Association and the staffs of the National Archives, Dublin; the National Library, Dublin; and Attic Press Archives, Cork for their assistance with this research.


Delay, C. and Sundstrom, B. (2019), "The Legacy of Symphysiotomy in Ireland: A Reproductive Justice Approach to Obstetric Violence", Reproduction, Health, and Medicine (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 20), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 197-218.



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