Roe McDermott explores the traumatic pain and suffering caused by vaginal mesh, and asks why Irish women routinely find themselves neglected, dismissed and abused by the Irish healthcare system.
This week, abortion legislation was finally passed in Ireland, marking a monumental moment for women in Ireland whose bodies and sense of autonomy have been controlled by patriarchal laws for far too long.
"the biggest health scandal to affect women since thalidomide”
However, while the abortion legislation is an incredible victory, another medical scandal has been devastating the lives of many Irish women, and yet again shows Ireland’s comfort with ignoring women’s rights and committing grievous harm against their bodies.
The use of vaginal mesh in Ireland has resulted in women suffering from chronic pain, nerve damage, chronic inflammation, incontinence, neuropathic pain in legs and back, painful sex, fibromyalgia, damage to internal organs, and even paralysation. Many women are left unable to walk without the aid of a walking stick due to the pain and nerve damage.
The negligent use of vaginal mesh has been described by London consultant Dr Sohier Elneil as "the biggest health scandal to affect women since thalidomide.”
And yet the coverage of this scandal has been minimal; why?
Simple. Because this problem only affects women’s bodies.
What is vaginal mesh?
Vaginal mesh is made with the plastic polypropylene, and in the 1990s became a popular treatment for pelvic organ prolapse and stress urinary incontinence that can affect women after childbirth, hysterectomies or menopause. In 2015 alone, approximately 2,000 women were treated with vaginal mesh in public hospitals in Ireland.
But what women were not told was that the synthetic mesh can disintegrate in the body and migrate, causing fistulas to form. Gruesomely dubbed “the cheesewire” or “cheesgrater effect”, it literally cuts women as they move, causing pain or bleeding. Women have reported pieces of mesh protruding, cutting through their vaginas, and even cutting their partners during sexual intercourse.
The suffering of women who have had vaginal mesh implanted is just another example of how misogyny is built into Irish healthcare.
Due to the design of the mesh and its habit of migrating and disintegrating in the body, it can be incredibly difficult to remove, as it can become embedded into organs and tissues, while smaller pieces can break off inside the body.
Irish women who are suffering excruciating pain because of vaginal mesh often have to travel to the UK for treatment, as Ireland has no translabial scanners which can show whether the mesh has moved or begun to degrade. As with abortion historically, Irish women are yet again being forced to leave the country and pay large sums to receive healthcare due to this country’s apathy towards their bodies and autonomy.
Currently, the HSE has been directed to stop the use of all procedures that use vaginal mesh in public hospitals, the Chief Medical Officer is currently compiling a report on the issue, and a number of Irish women affected by the issue are pursuing legal action against manufacturers and individual clinicians.
Ireland's history of endangering women's health
But the question remains: why it is always Irish women who face these systemic and often lethal healthcare scandals? Why do we care so little about women’s rights, bodies and lives – particularly when it comes to issues related to reproductive health?
Let’s examine the list: laws that prevented women from accessing contraception; Magdalene Laundries; symphysiotomies; the fatal cervical cancer cover-ups; the dismissal of women with endometriosis; and of course, the fact that Irish women are only now being granted (limited) access to abortion.
Endometriosis effects 1 in 10 women but takes an average of 7.5 years to diagnose, as women are assumed to be imagining symptoms.
Ireland has proven time and time again that we are comfortable using women’s bodies as a playground for sadistic practices and patriarchal control. And the suffering of women who have had vaginal mesh implanted is just another example of how misogyny is built into Irish healthcare.
One mesh survivor encapsulated this form of dismissal when she said “When women talk to their consultants, they are being told it is not the mesh, it's all in your head, it's part of menopause, it's your age, etc. When they tell about the pain during sex women have been told they can always have anal or oral sex to please themselves and their partner.’”
Gendered and racial bias against women's pain
The alarming amount of Irish health scandals that primarily effect women are a prime example of how healthcare systems globally are systemically biased against female patients.
Some of this is due to the gendered way the medical industry understands the human body. A 2000 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged while experiencing a heart attack. Why? Because the medical concepts of most diseases are based on understandings of male physiology, when women can have different symptoms. Similarly, while 70% of people who suffer from chronic pain are women, 80% of studies are conducted on male mice or human men.
But plain ol’ sexism also plays a huge role. Several studies have shown that women’s pain is routinely dismissed and underestimated by medical professionals who assume that women are exaggerating or seeking attention. Endometriosis, for example, effects 1 in 10 women but takes an average of 7.5 years to diagnose, as women are assumed to be imagining symptoms. Women are also less likely to receive prescriptions for pain medication than men.
In Ireland, 40% of maternal deaths are migrant women, despite migrant men and women making up only 17% of the general population
This bias against women by medical professionals is heightened for women of colour, who are routinely undertreated. Black women, for example, face discrimination and neglect due to stereotypes of the “strong Black woman” and false, racist beliefs about biological differences between white and Black bodies that stops white people from empathising with or believing their symptoms. In America, Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women.
In Ireland, 40% of maternal deaths are migrant women, despite migrant men and women making up only 17% of the general population – a fact that was routinely omitted during conversations about abortion legislation, despite a woman of colour being used as the face of the Repeal campaign. As always, sexism must be examined alongside racism and other forms of discrimination to truly understand how neglect, abuse and discrimination impact the most vulnerable in society.
How many times must we say 'never again'?
It is simply impossible to imagine men’s rights, bodies and lives being treated with the systemic negligence, cruelty and abusive control that women in Ireland have repeatedly suffered. And should it happen, it would be treated as a national crisis, not dismissed as a “women’s issue” that is easily ignored.
Will the vaginal mesh scandal finally mark the end of our systemic abuse of women’s bodies, and herald a new era of care and respect? Or, like in the past, will this be just another example of how Irish women are forced to scream our pain at a country that refuses to listen?
If you have been affected by this, Mesh Survivors Ireland are a support and information group available on Facebook or Twitter.