As I have hinted at in previous articles, particularly my article on why atheists are sometimes angry, when religion mixes with reality, bad things can happen. This is very much true in the realm of medicine. Whether it be faith healing or denying blood transfusions, religion can often have a very negative effect on one’s health when its narrative is accepted over one based on science and evidence.This can be no more clear in a recent case of women seeking compensation from the Irish government for harm caused by an alternative to the caesarian section known as the symphysiotomy.
A symphysiotomy is essentially an alternative of the more common caesarian section for pregnancies in which women cannot give birth in a safe manner. Basically, it involves breaking or sawing a woman’s pelvis in half, so that the baby has more room to come out for women giving birth. It is reported to be a very painful, and can have long lasting negative consequences for both the woman and the fetus involved. It was developed in the late eighteenth century, but quickly fell out of favor due to dismal results. However, Ireland continued to use the procedure well into the 1980s.
Survivors of the procedure often described their experiences in very graphic terms. One woman compared it to being butchered, and some mentioned that they were awake and in pain for the entire procedure. Many had it done against their will, and were either misled to believe that they were going to have a c-section, or were actively held down and shackled. The long term consequences of the procedure are shocking. One patient reported the loss of use of their legs while others mentioned that they had to hobble for the rest of their lives. Many faced incontinence because their insides were essentially butchered in the procedure. Babies born after the procedure often faced negative effects themselves, since they often were harmed by the sawing the procedure entailed, or because giving birth sometimes took days, which caused the babies to run out of oxygen (these examples can be verified here).
These procedures took place in Ireland after World War II, when the rest of the world had moved on to using the caesarian section. While the motivations used in performing this procedure are complicated, the religious beliefs of the doctors involved often played a part in the practice of this procedure. As we know, Ireland is a very Catholic country, and they have a rather bad reputation even today for allowing their religious beliefs to get in the way of pregnant women’s health. However, in this case, religious views led to pain that one would expect in a third world country like Iraq or Sudan or Saudi Arabia, not a first world country. To be fair, it should be mentioned that the procedure was not advocated for on a systemic level (Ireland is being sued for its negligence in not stopping it, not because it played an active role in it), but by Catholic doctors with strong religious beliefs.
Catholics were often pressured to undergo the procedure, often with little knowledge of what it was before they experienced it, for several religious reasons. Looking at the source material, a document submitted to the UN’s Committee Against Torture, it was believed by Catholics that cutting a woman open via a C-section was associated with birth control or giving her a hysterectomy, which went against Catholic teachings on reproduction. Moreover, because caesarian sections led to higher risks with each subsequent child, women were limited to having three or four safely with the c-section, while with the symphysiotomy, they could have as many as they wanted. This also went against the teachings of the church. The second religious reason cited by one survivor was the idea that Catholic women were obligated to suffer through childbirth, and C-sections were seen as cheating the system so to speak. These procedures were more common in Catholic hospitals, generally by doctors who resisted adapting to newer, safer procedures. There were some questions about the safety of the C-section in Ireland, but at this point it appeared most of the civilized world had moved on (not that symphysiotomy ever really had good results), so it makes little sense for Ireland to not move on to better alternatives.
To be fair, there also appeared to be nonreligious reasons why this barbaric practice was carried out. Some doctors seemed to be skeptical of the C-section, and thought that the symphysiotomy was a better possible alternative. In a sense, by carrying out this procedure, doctors say themselves as carrying out an experiment, albeit an unsanctioned and inhumane one in practice. It was also performed in order to train doctors who wanted to practice overseas in poor countries in Africa where C-sections would be much more difficult to safety carry out. These reasons point to a lack of institutional safeguards, and a lack of a safe testing design. Nowadays, there are much stricter standards on testing for human subjects, especially here in the United States, although even we have had our infamous ethical medical experiments practiced in the past.
Regardless of secular reasons why such incidents occurred, one cannot deny a strong religious component behind the reasoning on the need for this procedure. The fact that doctors would pressure women to this course of action in order for them to have more kids or suffer through childbirth is sickening. The idea that women should suffer through childbirth is especially disturbing, and goes back to the story of Adam and Eve. Doctors in this scenario literally allowed women to experience extreme pain and suffering because it was God’s punishment for eating a piece of fruit (Genesis 3:16).
This is what I mean when I see religion as a dangerous denial of reality. Belief in this story has harmed women and children. While in a secular worldview, pain in childbirth is seen as a problem that needs to be solved, with religion, it is an intentional design feature that should be embraced. This is really disgusting. The fact that women should be popping out children like crazy with little regard for their feelings or the impact they have on the world is also dangerous; these concerns echo today even here in the United States with the recent Hobby Lobby decision. Women should have complete control over their bodies and how many children they want to have, even if that number is zero. These religious values should have no place in medicine, and the discipline should be practiced in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath: it should respect science, and it should do no harm.
In conclusion, the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1980s really demonstrates the dangers of mixing religion with medicine. When religion guides medicine, fantasy takes precedence over reality, and real people are harmed. This is because belief in myths and fables taking precedence over peoples’ health and well being is a recipe for actions against humanity. The women in Ireland who underwent this procedure, often under the discretion of religious doctors, largely because of the religious based rejection of other safer procedures like the caesarian section, were essentially butchered, and the sad part is that it was largely unnecessary. They underwent a great amount of unnecessary pain and suffering, and while not all of the reasons were religious, much of the motivation behind the procedure was.
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