This story can be told because of the actions of a small number of midwives working in the Maternity Unit of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda who complained to other staff and to the Health Board in late 1998, that they believed that the senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr. Neary, who worked there, was carrying out an unusual number of caesarean hysterectomies and that some of his clinical practices were out of date. Dr. Neary was initially suspended and, following various investigations and a lengthy hearing before the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Irish Medical Council, he was struck off the Medical Register in September 2003.
Subsequently, a government inquiry lead by Judge Maureen Harding Clark found that 188 peripartum hysterectomies were carried out in Our Lady of Lourdes in the 25 years between 1974 and 1998 and that in the period 1992–1998, the rate was 5% (1 in 20 caesarean sections ended in hysterectomy), 20 times the rate of other similar hospitals in the same period. Very few people expressed any concern about these hysterectomies during this time and no-one made a formal complaint or questioned openly until the midwives did so in 1998.
In this paper, I examine the findings of the Harding Clark Report through a feminist lens. This approach foregrounds the concerns of the women at the heart of the inquiry as well as the experiences of women who were Neary’s gynaecological patients. It considers the impact of gender roles and gendered understandings on the lives of individual human beings and draws attention to the asymmetries of power and privilege that exist between men and women, and the impact such asymmetries had in this particular situation. An essential feature of this feminist perspective is a concern with the marginalisation and disempowerment of women in sexist societies and a transformative concern to change those societies for the better.
This feminist analysis of what happened in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, and the subsequent inquiry that followed, pays attention to:
1. women’s bodies as the site of battles waged in relation to sexuality and reproductive rights.
2. the excess of epistemic and moral authority (of doctors and clergy) and the lack of such authority (of women patients, midwives and MMM sisters).
3. the creation of epistemic and moral spaces and strategies for change.