Ireland’s former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern once summed up the Irish attitude to building national infrastructure: “If there’s not a 10-year row about a project,” he said, “it’s not worth doing.”
If you apply this logic to to Ireland’s new National Maternity Hospital, it would prove a very worthy project indeed. Planning permission was finally lodged earlier this month for construction to begin on the new facility, ending years of delays and negotiations.
The fact that the government handed ownership of a new $330 million state hospital to a religious order has led to a national debate over the continued involvement of the Catholic Church in Ireland’s health care system.
The government agreed that the new hospital would be built on the grounds of an existing hospital, St. Vincent’s, which is owned by the Sisters of Charity. While it was understood that the new hospital would be run by its own board and have clinical and operational independence, the Sisters of Charity would be its sole owners.
The fact that the government handed ownership of a new $330 million state hospital to a religious order has led to a national debate over the continued involvement of the Catholic Church in Ireland’s health care system. A member of the of the National Maternity Hospital board, Peter Boylan, publicly opposed the deal, raising concern over whether procedures that contradict Catholic teaching—including dispensing contraception, sterilization, in vitro fertilization, gender reassignment surgery and therapeutic abortion (allowed in Ireland when the mother’s life is endangered)—would be permitted in the new hospital.
The current master of the National Maternity Hospital, Rhona Mahoney, insisted there is a “triple lock” to ensure clinical independence and that “nuns will not be running the hospital.” Amid the ongoing dispute, Mr. Boylan resigned from the board. The minister for health has promised to review the deal but stressed the urgency of the project and his commitment to building it on the St. Vincent’s site.
The matter of religious ethos in public hospitals in Ireland has been rumbling for some time. The Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity still own two of Ireland’s biggest hospitals, the Mater and St. Vincent’s. They have both said the hospitals are run independently, without religious constraints. Anecdotal reports have emerged in various news outlets, however, of urologists at St. Vincent’s Hospital not being permitted to perform vasectomies for the sole purpose of contraception or family planning. Gynecologists also claimed the same was true of tubal ligation, which meant that doctors referred patients elsewhere for the procedure.
The controversy over the new hospital has coincided with a significant recommendation from Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly, an advisory group convened to examine, among other things, Ireland’s abortion law. On Saturday it recommended to the national legislature that it provide for a referendum to change the article in the Irish Constitution that prohibits abortion in almost all cases. If Ireland’s abortion laws were to be changed and liberalized, it would create further complexities for the church-owned National Maternity Hospital.
Critics have urged the Sisters of Charity to give or sell the land to the state, thereby ending any uncertainty. They have also pointed to a government report published last month that found the order has to date paid only 2 million euros of the 5 million euros they pledged toward the state’s redress scheme for victims of institutional abuse.
The involvement of religious orders in the health care of women has a long and increasingly painful history in Ireland. The Sisters of Charity themselves ran five residential schools as far back as the 19th century where abuses were documented as well as the now infamous Magdalene Laundries, where “fallen women” were often placed if they had children or engaged in sexual behavior before marriage.
In March, a commission of investigation found the remains of children in a disused septic tank at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that the revelations concern not only a potential mass grave but “a social and cultural sepulchre.” It is a time the church, the state and the public are keen to move past. The debate over the National Maternity Hospital continues.