Lawsuit prompts retraction of book chapter on outdated birth surgery

Oonagh Walsh

Springer Nature has retracted a 2020 chapter in a digital book – along with a related introduction – after a judge in Ireland ruled that the paper defamed another researcher and two attorneys. 

“Truth or Dare; Women, Politics, and the Symphysiotomy Scandal”, was written by Oonagh Walsh, a professor of gender studies at Glasgow Caledonian University. The text appeared as Chapter 11 in the e-book GeoHumanities and Health, Global Perspectives on Health Geography.

The scandal, according to The Guardian, involved the controversial use of a surgery in which physicians: 

[sliced] through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint (or in extreme cases, called pubiotomy, sawing through the bone of the pelvis itself) to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered unobstructed.

Some 1,500 women in Ireland underwent symphysiotomy without consent between the 1940s and the 1980s, the newspaper said. 

Finding a copy of Walsh’s chapter online is difficult. But the first several lines read:

In 2016, a Redress Scheme was launched in Ireland to compensate women who had undergone the procedure of symphysiotomy in childbirth in the decades between 1940 and 1990. The scheme was the culmination of an exhaustive process that had seen two failed attempts at an independent report, the fracture of the main patient representative group, constant lobbying of Dail Eireann, and a widespread media campaign that crafted a David-and-Goliath narrative for public consumption. Inevitably, the reality was somewhat different. Throughout the process, emphasis was placed upon the importance of women’s voices and the primary testimony of those who had undergone the procedure. Yet, for one of the survivor groups, only certain kinds of voices were permitted, those who adapted their histories to the narrative that refused complexity or subtlety. This essay examines the manner in which a variety of women’s voices were crafted, amplified, and silenced in the service of a specific agenda. 

Apparently that take didn’t sit well with at least three readers – Marie O’Connor, a research sociologist, and Colm MacGeehin and Rudhán MacAodháin, lawyers in Dublin who had represented women who’d undergone symphysiotomy. 

The trio sued Walsh and Springer Nature for defamation – and in March 2022, in a case we seem to have missed at the time, they won both an apology and a retraction. Per the Irish Times, which wrote about the case: 

On Thursday, the High Court heard the parties had reached a settlement and an apology was read out.

In it, the defendants accepted the chapter contained defamatory statements detrimental to the reputations of the three plaintiffs.

The apology also stated the chapter had been withdrawn and will not be republished.

The retraction notice doesn’t mention the defamation suit, but it does cite “legal reasons” for the removal of Walsh’s article and the introductory chapter, which mentioned the offending text. 

Walsh did not respond to a request for comment. 

MacAodháin told us: 

Of course we were satisfied that this article was removed, damages were paid and an apology was read out in court …

The entire article was filled with false allegations of wrongdoing which were highly defamatory of the representatives of women who had undergone symphysiotomy in Ireland. The representative groups of these women and their lawyers had criticised Dr Walsh’s report on symphysiotomy (as commissioned by the Irish State) and some time later this article was published.

He declined to discuss the specifics of the defamatory language – saying that republishing the statements would itself be defamatory: 

Suffice to say the chapter impugned our reputations as lawyers by making all sorts of false allegations of facts regarding our motives and professional conduct in representing our clients. We have always acted with the upmost good faith and integrity in representing our clients, some of whom have been victims of institutional abuse and have suffered very serious injuries. We therefore feel fully vindicated by this settlement and removal of this chapter in its entirety.

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3 thoughts on “Lawsuit prompts retraction of book chapter on outdated birth surgery”

  1. The retraction of the chapter by Oonagh Walsh entitled “Truth or Dare: Women, Politics, and the Symphysiotomy Scandal” in a Springer journal and the successful action by a sociologist and two lawyers against the author as detailed above only demands further follow-up.
    The chapter was apparently derived from a report prepared by Dr Walsh for the Irish Government on symphysiotomy in the country in the period 1944-84. This was the third attempt at a report on the problem, and the two previous proceedings had been abrogated. According to some statements, Dr Walsh’s report was not universally accepted, because it acknowledged that there was an argument for the procedure in certain cases. A survivors group (chaired by Marie O’Connor, one of the successful litigants) , was especially vocal about the shortcomings of the report, and eventually the government was forced to pay 34 million euros in total to survivors.
    Not having access to the chapter in the Springer publication, the main surviving document is the report itself from 2014, which is found on the site of Dr Walsh’s university (Final report on symphysiotomy in Ireland, 1944-1984: Glasgow Caledonian University. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/293879808.pdf).
    It is certainly not clear why this report gave rise to a successful legal action against the author. Since the lawsuit was settled out of court, I cannot find any further leads on what happened. Perhaps an Irish author could enlighten us on this confusing situation.

  2. the chapter is not at all difficult to find. indeed, the entire book, including walsh’s ‘truth or dare’ chapter, is available online, is currently free to view, and easily downloaded and consumed in less than 30 minutes. anyone interested in recent developments re symphysiotomy in ireland might wish to read the chapter and make up their own minds.

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