An Cailín Rua
THE recent revelation that the Department of Health will hand over sole ownership of the new €300m National Maternity Hospital to the order of the Sisters of Charity has been met with quite the reaction. Mostly negative, it must be said, with a number of public protests taking place, and a petition objecting to the handover to a religious order which at the time of writing garnered 80,000 signatures in two days.
It must be asked - is the outrage justified?
The new hospital – a modern, state-of-the-art facility - will be located on the Elm Park campus, next to St Vincent’s University Hospital on land owned by the Sisters, shareholders of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. The National Maternity Hospital is currently situated in a building on Holles Street described by the Master, Dr Rhona Mahony as “an ancient, crumbling structure … not fit for purpose.”
A new facility is desperately needed - and has been for nearly 20 years. In fact, the new hospital design was first mooted in 1998. The National Maternity Strategy states that the three standalone maternity hospitals in Dublin should be co-located with tertiary acute adult hospitals, a measure that makes sound medical sense, but limits the number of suitable sites –with realistically, the Vincent’s site being the only realistic option for the Holles Street relocation.
Years have been spent trying to close the deal, with the issue of governance almost derailing the project and requiring mediation. While Holles Street wished to remain independent, St Vincent’s wanted it to come under its governance structures – governance with a Catholic ethos that directly influences medical policy. The handover of the building and an assurance that the Sisters “will have no active role in the running of the hospital” is the apparent outcome of this mediation. Health Minister Simon Harris has stated that the “new maternity hospital will have full clinical, operational and budgetary independence, free of religious or ethnic influence,” adding that the hospital’s independence is “copper-fastened by reserved powers and a golden share held by Minister for Health of the day.”
This all sounds good, so why the cause for concern?
Well, it’s just not credible. Religion has been inextricably linked with healthcare in Ireland for decades, for better and worse. It is naïve in the extreme to expect people to believe that a hospital owned by a religious order, with significant religious representation on its governing board will be free from religious influence. And many Irish women have had enough of Catholic interference with their reproductive health, thank you very much. The handover places under legitimate question the provision of services such as contraception, IVF, sterilisation - and abortion, when it is inevitably legalised in Ireland. As journalist Philip Nolan pointed out in last week’s Daily Mail, if Savita Hallappanavar was denied a life-saving termination on grounds of Ireland being a Catholic country - in a hospital not owned by a religious order - is it any wonder women are nervous?
Also, the handover of a building of this value – regardless of the restrictions placed upon its use by the State – is a hugely symbolic gesture. The Sisters of Charity, were perpetrators of abuse towards women and children for decades, have refused to provide their share of funds towards the redress scheme designed to compensate their victims. Irrespective of whether the new hospital meets an entirely separate clinical need for Irish women, that this contempt should be rewarded in any way is outrageous in the extreme and an insult to survivors.
Of course, it is entirely understandable that given the urgent need for this facility and the substandard conditions of Holles Street, both Dr Mahony and Minister Harris are at pains to highlight the apparent independence of the new hospital and get the project over the line. Should it be derailed now, it would be a disaster.
However, it cannot proceed at any cost. Women’s safety and medical needs must – without exception - come first. Religion therefore can no longer legitimately have a place in healthcare.
The solution? Well, the Sisters of Charity have a golden opportunity to – finally – live up to their name. This should be our hospital, not theirs. Make it happen.