PUT a pregnant woman in a room with a few other mothers and the talk will inevitably turn to the horrors of giving birth.
Some time ago I had a conversation with some girlfriends which should have been shocking. We were regaling each other with our experiences of pregnancies in Irish hospitals and the talk began to resemble the old Monty Python sketch, as we vied to outdo each other with our tales of neglect.
What we all found particularly irksome was the manner in which many State-funded hospitals continued to apply a rigid Catholic ethos, regardless of the legal rights of their patients.
I gaily contributed a story about a miscarriage I had suffered, and the dismissive and uncaring reception I received.
I was left alone for hours, in great pain and bleeding profusely before being (grudgingly, I felt) taken to have an "D and C".
In contrast, a girl I know, undergoing a similar tragedy at the same time in the same hospital, was treated with great care and attention.
The difference was nothing to do with our level of healthcare. Reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that it was our marital status. She was married while I, inexcusably in this very Catholic (though State-funded) hospital, was merely engaged. The staff treated me like the hussy they thought I was.
Another friend told a much sadder story. A single mother of two, she had become pregnant and decided that the only option for her was a termination. Some time after her return from Britain she suffered severe haemorrhaging and rushed to her local hospital. She was told her condition was extremely serious, but that "it served her right after what she had done" and she was "lucky" they had agreed to treat her at all. No joking, this woman felt that she was treated like a penitent in a Magdalene home.
This was in a hospital completely funded by State money; these were not nuns treating her, but lay professionals, albeit with strong Catholic beliefs.
Last time I checked Ireland was not a theocracy. We now joke about becoming more atheistic than the English in our fashionable disregard for the tenets' of the Catholic Church, to which the majority of our parents were beholden.
Religion has become a private matter in Ireland. The nuns and brothers have left our schools and hospitals and we believe that the ideal of personal conscience within the law is increasingly the ethos in these mainly State institutions. Right? Wrong.
While we assure our unionist neighbours that we are no longer a Catholic controlled society, our Government would seem to be implicit in deliberately removing any ethos that is not specifically Catholic from Irish hospitals.
Last week, Dr John Neill, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, spoke of being "extremely concerned" about the future of a meaningful Church of Ireland involvement in Tallaght Hospital. He talked of "solemn agreements" given by the Government and approved by the Oireachtas in 1996 being ignored or frustrated.
Tallaght Hospital is not, of course, "a Protestant hospital for Protestant patients", he said. Its charter, written in 1996 stated that it would have "a multidenominational and pluralist character".
It was officially named The Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Dublin, incorporating the National Children's hospital (AMNCH), and before it opened it was promised that the "ethos and traditions of the Adelaide Hospital will be fully protected in the broad structure and management of the new hospital".
At present there is great fear, and not just among the protestant community, that Tallaght Hospital is being seriously downgraded.
Last week, Gordon Linney, a member of the Tallaght hospital board and a former archdeacon of Dublin, asked: "What motivates those in officialdom who seek to deny the ethical freedom of choice and services promised for Tallaght Hospital?"
Linney has due cause for worry. It would seem that Tallaght has been systematically downgraded since before it was opened. Initially, Tallaght was meant to have a maternity unit. That idea was dropped before it even opened. Its proposed 830 beds somehow got reduced to 500. Tallaght has been denied the capacity or funding for new tertiary services and consequently its bids for radiation oncology and the new paediatric hospital were refused.
The new National Children's Hospital will be located at the Mater, a State-funded hospital run according to a very strict Catholic ethos.
Whereas at Tallaght hospital there is an obligation "to promote and secure the availability, as a matter between the patient and his or her doctor, of such medical and surgical procedures as may lawfully be provided within the State", no such obligation applies to the Mater, if the availability of a medical or surgical procedure goes against Catholic ethos.
This was sensationally demonstrated last year when three members of the board (sub committee) of the Mater Hospital (two of whom were religious) decided to stop trials for a cancer drug because females undergoing treatment were advised to take contraception or abstain from sex. The proposal to use the drug had already been approved by the ethics committee in Tallaght hospital but the sub committee of the Mater board argued that advising women to use contraception was against Catholic doctrine.
This sounds insane. A priest, a nun and a Catholic businessman tried to stop giving terminally ill women the chance to have their lives prolonged by several months because they didn't want them told they should use contraception if they were having sex? And the State is paying for nonsense to be propagated? Fr Kevin Doran, one of those who protested, argued that pharmaceutical companies behind clinical trials are being "over-prescriptive in their requirements", requiring women to use contraception which was contrary to Catholic teaching, and "infringing on women's freedom".
Did you get that last sentence? A Catholic priest tries to deny women a drug which may extend their lives because he is concerned about their "freedom"?
Oh yes, the Catholic Church has always been to the forefront in its support of female freedom. You really couldn't make it up.
And it's not just the so-called "Catholic" hospitals, such as St Vincent's and the Mater in Dublin, which are opposed to "un-Catholic practices". One of the founders of both Blackrock and Galway private clinics, James Sheehan, admits that both hospitals have a Catholic ethos. (Seemingly, prayer books are provided in all bedside lockers in Galway).
Last February, a consultant obstetrician in Sheehan's Galway Clinic complained to the High Court that she was prevented from carrying out certain operations because the procedures conflicted with the hospital's Catholic ethos.
The case was later settled in the High Court.
I attended Blackrock Clinic during both my pregnancies and was completely unaware that this Catholic ethos existed. And I'm rather annoyed that this information was not provided to me. I would have been rather concerned that information may have been kept from me about my pregnancy if that information could lead me to make decisions incompatible with Catholic ethos.
Mind you, we're not exactly overburdened with choice between Catholic and secular hospitals, are we? Especially as the proposed maternity unit in Tallaght wasn't built.
Mixing religious beliefs and human reproduction can sometimes lead to situations which are not in the interest of the patient. This was all too clear in the Lourdes Hospital Inquiry Report into the activities of Dr Michael Neary.
In the Lourdes Report, Judge Harding-Clarke criticised the Catholic ethos of the hospital at the time: sterilisation and contraception were forbidden and Dr Neary asserted that this was the reason he carried out so many hysterectomies. Female sterilisation is still unavailable to patients at the Mater and St Vincent's hospitals - two of our largest State-funded hospitals.
As regards the future of the new Children's Hospital, are we to accept that only procedures endorsed by the Catholic Church will be performed? Does this mean that if a child is born with a hereditary genetic disease its parents will not be advised to use contraception? What about IVF and genetic research?
Can we be assured that we will get the best possible care from this hospital, regardless of whether that care is in compliance with Catholic ethos?
Worryingly, on past form it seems very doubtful.