Isn't it time to start making women's health a priority?

Isn’t it time to start making women’s health a priority?

Posted on January 20, 2013

I belong to a minority group. I am more likely to die of a preventable disease than my peers in other countries. My risk of death from a stroke, heart disease or cancer is one of the highest in Europe. I am considered too incompetent and untrustworthy to make a decision regarding my own reproductive health and I have no right of access to treatment for medical issues in this regard.

I am a woman living in Ireland.

It has not been a good news week for Irish women. The latest EU/OECD study has found that Irish women have the worst health record in the EU, despite Ireland being one of the top spenders on health.

Survival rates from cancer and heart attacks are one of the lowest in Europe and, while deaths from cervical cancer decreased in every other country apart from Greece, the number of Irish women dying from this preventable disease increased. Also this week, a report from the Maternal Death Enquiry, which aims to apply international standards to figures for maternal deaths in the UK and Ireland, has found that the maternal death rate in Ireland could be up to four times higher than CSO figures suggest.

Two weeks ago, the documentary, Mothers Against the Odds, was launched in Dublin. It tells the story of at least 1,500 women over a 40-year period who were subjected to a symphysiotomy.

This barbaric procedure, which involved a severing of the pelvis during childbirth, was performed in place of a Caesarean section as, at the time, a woman who had a C-section was restricted to four children and this went against the Catholic ethos of many hospitals. Most of these women were left crippled and the practice continued until 1983.

The day after the film launched, a story broke that showed that this shameful treatment of pregnant women is not just something that is part of our past.

Praveen Halappanavar has described how his pregnant wife, Savita, died in agony. Whether her death was due to medical negligence or our lack of abortion legislation remains to be seen.

What is known is that Savita was allowed to spend three days in agonising pain during which she begged repeatedly for her pregnancy to be terminated, once she knew that the foetus had no chance of survival. Two days later my own infertility charity, Pomegranate, held a lottery for IVF treatment. Why? Because there is no fertility treatment available on our health service and no health insurers will cover it either.

Ireland, along with Russia, offers the worst access to fertility treatment in Europe. If you can’t afford between €5,000 and €6,000 for a cycle of IVF, a diagnosis is simply the end of the line.

You don’t need to have a tinfoil hat to wonder why so many of the recent scandals in the Irish health service have affected women. There was the case of Michael Neary, an obstetrician who carried out 129 out of a total of 188 peripartum hysterectomies performed at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda between 1974 and 1998, when most consultants would carry out fewer than 10 in their whole career.

Then there was the revelation last year that 22 out of 24 women, who were wrongly told at scans that their pregnancies were not viable, went on to have babies after getting a second opinion.

And there were several recent cases where women were given false ‘all-clears’ for breast cancer and later died.

Men have always dominated the field of medical science and have defined women’s bodies in ways that made sense to them. In the late 1800s, ‘hysteria’ became a specific disease, exclusive to women.

Hysteria was a sexual ailment and symptoms included irritability, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, increase in sexual desire, decrease in sexual desire and “a tendency to cause trouble”.

One suggested treatment for hysteria was for men to beat their wives; in difficult cases, a hysterectomy was advised.

Thankfully, the second half of the 20th century saw an end to this sham diagnosis, along with huge advances in women’s healthcare in most of the Western world.

And yet here we are, in Ireland 2012. A patriarchal society where women aren’t provided with the choice or the financial support to make decisions about their own bodies, where negligence and lack of care results in disability and death, and where our women are dying from preventable diseases more frequently than in any other European country.

Isn’t it time we challenged the idea that a woman’s dignity should be defined by public opinion and that women’s rights must be mediated by benevolent father figures? Isn’t it time we made women’s health a priority?

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Evening Herald, 28 November 2012.

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