Happy International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day.

It is also another day that the Irish Department of Health and Children will spend counting down the hours until they can destroy material evidence of bad things that have happened to women in the State. Material evidence that they obtained through the operation of a Redress Scheme the terms of reference of which require the return of these records to the women who submitted them.

The Dept of Health has made statements to the effect that there is no need to retain the records as the women will be able to get copies again from their hospitals if they need them. But this ignores the defined retention schedule for clinical records relating to maternity care which is 25 years after the date of last pregnancy. It also ignores that there have been mergers and closures of hospitals and there is every chance that the hospital copies of records will not be available.

The Data Protection Commissioner is standing on the side line, apparently unconcerned that the destruction of records proposed is in contravention of the Terms of Reference of the Redress Scheme. She (or more accurately her Office) appears to have adopted the position that compliance with the Data Protection requirement to “retain for no longer than is necessary” automatically requires the destruction of records when the period of their usefulness purpose for has expired. “Allumer les déchiqueteuses” as they say in French.

A cynic would suggest that that is what the Department are counting on, given the renewed attention the United Nations is giving this issue as a question of Human Rights. A cynic might suggest that Digital Rights Ireland might have a point in their case about the independence of the DPC given the Office’s apparent unwillingness to engage with the balancing of rights issues that exist here.

My daughter is at an age where she wants to know what Daddy does for a living. She has decided I’m a “superhero spy guy” because I travel, wear suits, and try to help people but can’t always talk about it. Her child’s mind has not yet discovered Death by PowerPoint or the “clay layer” of change management, but she has started to learn about History. And History is important.

This issue is one where I have put my shoulder to the wheel to try and find a solution. It’s important. The medical records that face destruction in 12 days time represent important history. They are a record of the personal history of women who have already suffered and endured pain and indignity. They are a record of the social history of how the Irish State has treated women and women’s rights.

They are a record of a history we should not forget, even if it is painful for us to remember.

There is a valid historical value in these records being retained where they cannot be returned to the individuals so that their stories can be told in the aggregate. There is a practical value in the records being placed in trust with an independent body who can provide them back to individuals on request, while still supporting historical research. There is a Public Interest in remembering.

Ireland is not the only EU country to have struggled with the challenge of how to handle files from the past that evidence the gap between how we want to remember and what we need to remember. Countries of the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, including Germany, have retained the files that the Secret Police held on citizens. Individuals can request their own files back. Copies are held for historical research. Access for other purposes is strictly controlled. All of this operates in some of the most conservative Data Protection regimes in Europe. Perhaps Ireland needs to adopt a similar approach to the darker periods of our collective past.

For today’s International Women’s Day I hope my superpower (pedantic analysis of data privacy legislation and fundamental principles) can contribute in some way to ensuring that my daughter grows up in an Ireland that has learned from is painful past and treats its wives, daughters, and mothers with more fundamental respect than her grandmothers’ generation enjoyed.

Treating the records of Survivors of Symphisiotomy with greater respect than the survivors themselves have received would be a start.

Posted in Ethics & Law of Information.