In late April 2017, around 200 people gathered outside the Department of Health to protest the Government’s decision to hand over control of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to the Religious Sisters of Charity. Two weeks later, 2,000 people joined a ‘We Own The Hospital’ march. A petition quickly gathered 104,000 signatures against the decision.
And the demonstrators won. The Religious Sisters of Charity announced they would cease involvement in healthcare and that they would gift the land for the new hospital to the people of Ireland. The then-Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said that the publicly-funded hospital would be publicly-controlled.
But anyone with experience of the Irish education system can guess what happened next. In recent years, as the Christian Brothers and other religious orders have stepped back from direct involvement in schools, they have set up trusts to ensure that their religious ethos will continue long after they’re gone. The nuns are playing similar games.
An Irish solution
“The Religious Sisters of Charity have never really gone away and in fact are creating structures to ensure that their ethos prevails when they do step away,” says Marie O’Connor of the Campaign Against Church Control of Women’s Healthcare.
The nuns’ involvement in the NMH came about in 2013, when the Government committed to building and funding a new national maternity hospital and when St Vincent’s Healthcare Group – a private entity owned and controlled by the Religious Sisters of Charity – offered land at Elm Park for the new hospital. Talks between St Vincent’s and the current NMH at Holles Street broke down over the new hospital’s independence. Kieran Mulvey was brought in to mediate.
In 2016 Mulvey recommended that the State should build the new NMH at St Vincent’s, with St Vincent’s retaining ownership of the site, which it would then lease to the State. Once Mulvey’s recommendations were made public, the demonstrations started.
O’Connor explains that the hospital will still be built on land owned by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group at Elm Park. The religious order will own the freehold of the site and will grant a 99 year lease to the State to build the new hospital on.
However, that lease will allow the government to build the hospital on condition that exclusive operating rights are given (by way of licence) to a new company that will be owned by St Vincent’s Holdings, which is owned by the nuns.
“This is a plan that, if it is allowed to continue, will see the new hospital – which will be funded out of the public purse – owned 100% by a private Catholic company,” says O’Connor. “The lease will leave the State powerless. Yet the new hospital will cost the taxpayer at least €500m to build and the State will fund all subsequent maintenance and running costs. Despite this, the State will have no involvement in the nun’s company, St Vincent’s Holdings.”
O’Connor goes on to explain that “the Religious Sisters of Charity have made it clear that there will be no transfer of assets until the legal framework with the State has been concluded. This will ensure that the new maternity hospital will be run on the nun’s terms and it will only provide those limited reproductive health services that fall in line with their values. While the Religious Sisters of Charity have claimed that the assets will be handed over to the people of Ireland, they will in fact be handed over to a new company that the nuns currently own and control, a body which will, therefore, own and control the new NMH.
“This situation will leave the State powerless as no private hospital can be compelled to provide services, such as IVF, contraception, abortions or intentional sterilisations, that are contrary to its ethos.”
There are clear grounds for the Campaign’s concerns.
In 2017 the Irish Times reported that unnamed staff had told the paper how patients were often referred to other hospitals to avoid conflict with St Vincent’s ethical guidelines, directly contradicting the hospital spokesperson’s statement that there was no prohibition on any medical procedures.
“Hospitals throughout the world owned by Catholic congregations do not permit sterilisations, IVF, abortion, gender-reassignment surgery or other procedures prohibited by the Church and it is not credible that the new NMH, under the control of the Religious Sisters of Charity, would be the first Catholic hospital to do so.”
In the United States, O’Connor says, Catholic healthcare providers have used leases to ban abortion.
Repeal(ed) the 8th
The Campaign’s demands are clear: “The Campaign Against Church Control of Women’s Healthcare is calling on the Government to recognise and respect the vote of the great majority of the people of this country, who voted in the Referendum in 2018 for the State to legalise abortion. The Government must recognise that it is the clear desire and demand of the people that the new hospital is a secular institution in which services and procedures such as IVF, surgical sterilistion, and abortion, which may not be in line with Catholic Church teaching, are not prohibited.
“The only way the Government can ensure this is by owning the land on which the new hospital is to be built and by taking the National Maternity Hospital into public ownership,” says O’Connor.
The Campaign’s proposal is in line with the Government’s own stated policy on moving towards public, rather than private, healthcare. Such moves are already happening in other parts of the healthcare system; the State is going to fully own and operate the new National Children’s Hospital, taking over from services provided by the Sisters of Mercy at Temple Street and by the diocesan Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin.
It seems that the Campaign is making some progress. Last week, Michéal Martin announced to the Dáil that he is “not just very keen on, but insistent on” all State policies taking place in the new hospital and that he would bring the issues raised by TDs to the Minister for Health.
But, as LookLeft has previously reported, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has been trying to rush the development through with little concern as to what will actually take place in the hospital once it’s built, going as far as to try getting the new NMH exempted from the Government’s guidelines on large capital infrastructure projects. It would appear he wants to ensure that he is the Minister at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“It is necessary for our public representatives to act urgently on this,” says O’Connor. “The Campaign is very pleased with the recent setting up of the cross-party Oireachtas group.”
She suggests a number of actions that TDs and senators can do to push the issue. Demand that the issue is discussed in the Oireachtas. Raise it in the media. Seek the immediate release of all documentation. Draft a Bill placing the existing NMH at Holles Street, itself a private Catholic corporation under the formal control of the Dublin archdioceses, into public ownership.
But this isn’t just a fight for elected representatives. The Campaign is looking for all groups and individuals interested in reproductive rights to get informed on the issues and to make their voices heard.