NMH constitution must be amended

An Cailín Rua

CRITIC Dr Peter Boylan, the former master of the NMH, last week told an Oireachtas Committee said ‘it is not credible’ that values upheld by the Sisters of Charity are compatible with services such as elective abortion.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

On May 27, 2013, Minister for Health James Reilly, announced that the Government planned to relocate the National Maternity Hospital (NMH), Holles Street, to the St Vincent’s University Hospital Campus. Long prior, it had been widely accepted that the old building was no longer fit for purpose, and that the co-location of the maternity hospital with adult acute services was the best solution, and important for high-risk mothers and babies. Urgent intervention was needed.
But while medical staff have consistently highlighted the urgency and necessity, the pace of progression suggests that those in power have failed to grasp the nettle and get it done.
It is little wonder in that case, that the most impassioned pleas of late for a decision to be made to allow the hospital to progress are coming from those working at the coalface in difficult, challenging conditions. And from a beleaguered Minister for Health and Fianna Fáil party who, nearly a decade later, really must get it across the line. They have spent the last fortnight scrambling to convince the public that the deal they have made with the site-owners, the Religious Sisters of Charity, is a good one.
But the public is unconvinced.
For those unaware, the issues are thus. Until recently, St Vincent’s Healthcare Group was owned by the Sisters. They recently transferred their ownership shares to a company called St Vincent’s Holdings, a not-for-profit charity, which now owns the original St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. It in turn will own the new maternity hospital. A separate, new company with nine directors will be established to run the new hospital. The Minister for Health will hold a golden share to overrule the board if necessary. The Sisters claim to have divested themselves of any involvement in healthcare.
Doubts remain as to the lack of potential religious influence in the new company. Firstly, because the transfer of shares received Vatican approval, the conditions of which have not been revealed. Secondly, because the new company constitution includes terms that could be construed as distinctly Catholic (‘human dignity’, ‘Speak for the voiceless’). Thirdly, because the permitted use of the hospital is stated as ‘provision of all clinically appropriate and legally permissible healthcare services’. The phrase ‘clinically appropriate’ remains undefined and ambiguous.
There is therefore a fear that treatments such as terminations can be restricted if not deemed ‘clinically appropriate’, and a suggestion that elective procedures contrary to Catholic ethos such as tubal litigation can be refused under this test. The Minister’s ‘Golden Share’ has also been interpreted as being subject to these tests. The memory of Savita Halappanavar runs deep. And you don’t need nuns to have religion. You just need the right people on the board.
Those who want the deal done are clamouring to state their strong belief that all services will be guaranteed. But a belief is not legally binding. Many legal experts – and two HSE board members – argue the opposite.
It is not hard to understand why people are so deeply mistrustful of both Church and State, in light of the litany of abuse, torture and lies meted out over the last century, for which dues have still not been paid. They are seeking a cast-iron, legally sound agreement guaranteeing a right to access all types of reproductive healthcare. Safeguarding that rights for future generations is also vital, especially when the Golden Share is dependent on the Minister of the day – this is, after all, happening against the background of a conservative-dominated US Supreme Court striking down the Roe v Wade decision, which protects the freedom of women to choose abortion.
Neither is it hard to understand why women don’t trust a Minister who has to date failed to ensure access to abortion services in eight HSE-run hospitals across the state, and when, during Covid, he failed to ensure that labouring women could exercise one of their most basic human rights as recommended by the WHO – to have a companion present to support them.
This is not misinformation or scaremongering or political haymaking, as has been claimed. These are very valid legal questions that the Government or the new company has not addressed.
We haven’t even touched on the financials and ownership questions, but despite the billions involved, they are not even the big issue. Trust is. The new constitution could easily be redrafted to remove these ambiguities and reassure the public.
So why hasn’t it?