Tuesday 16 July 2019

Colette Brown: Public protest only reason nuns won't own maternity hospital

St Vincent’s University Hospital in south Dublin, where the new National Maternity Hospital will be built. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
St Vincent’s University Hospital in south Dublin, where the new National Maternity Hospital will be built. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The decision by the Order of the Sisters of Charity to relinquish control of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG) is a victory for protesters - and an indictment of the Government.

Health Minister Simon Harris yesterday dubbed the decision by the order to cut ties to the hospital group it set up nearly 200 years ago as "truly historic", and he was right.

But the Government wasn't an actor in the making of this history. In fact, it was perfectly content with the status quo. Instead, the main protagonists in this seismic decision were the tens of thousands of ordinary men and women around the country who reacted with visceral anger to the blasé announcement the State was about to gift an order of nuns ownership of a new €300m maternity hospital.

Their protest was spontaneous, sincere and profoundly felt. It erupted in a groundswell of incredulous anger, channelled by the eloquence and expertise of Dr Peter Boylan, that threatened to derail to entire project.

The depth of feeling dumbfounded the Government, which clearly felt that byzantine ownership arrangements were a trivial part of the ultimate deal.

Despite the persistent assurances of Government representatives that religious ethos would not influence the treatment of women at the new maternity hospital, one line from a statement, released by the Sisters of Charity yesterday, stands out.

"Upon completion of this proposed transaction, the requirement set out in the SVHG constitution to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code will be amended and replaced to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland."

Consider that sentence for a moment, because the implications are chilling. Up to now, if there was a divergence between international best practice guidelines and Catholic ethos, in relation to patient care, the former did not automatically trump the latter.

This is not some kind of abstraction for patients. In 2005, the Mater Hospital deferred a trial of a new cancer drug because it conflicted with its religious ethos - female participants would have had to use birth control as part of the trial. The mission creep of religious influence is not always as stark and pronounced. In many hospitals, religious ethos is routinised with certain procedures - tubal ligations or vasectomies, for instance - simply not performed.

In those cases, there is no embarrassing publicity from a controversial ethics committee decision to deal with because there is no debate. Certain operations just don't happen. Meanwhile, the petty depths to which some will go to jealously guard hospitals' religious ethos from perceived attack were laid bare last month when it was revealed the Mater Hospital doesn't provide women with the contraceptive pill. Female in-patients must get friends and relatives to smuggle it in.

So, while the decision of the Order of the Sisters of Charity must be welcomed, and its contribution to healthcare in Ireland acknowledged, we should also question how the State got to where it is - reliant on the involvement of religious groups to provide healthcare to its citizens.

On that basis, it is also legitimate to wonder where healthcare in this country is going? Is it now the case we are going to replace religious charities with other kinds of charitable groups and entrust valuable State assets to these private entities?

The perception in Government circles yesterday was the nuns' sacrifice would be enough to defuse the crisis that had engulfed the project, but questions still remain about why voluntary hospitals are required in a modern secular State.

It was hard to escape the feeling that Mr Harris and his Cabinet colleagues expected the public to erupt in sustained applause at the news that a religious order would not control the new National Maternity Hospital after all.

But the Government doesn't deserve credit for narrowly avoiding a disaster of its own making. Instead of expecting plaudits, members of the Government should consider why it is that a valuable new public hospital will not be owned by the public, but instead is to be given to a private charity.

It is also legitimate to ask if an overt religious ethos will now be replaced by something softer and less pronounced, perhaps in the choice of conservative members of the board of the new hospital.

These are questions which will be answered when more information about the composition of the new board is released. However, what is apparent after this debacle is the Government's commitment to separate Church and State isn't worth the paper its written on.

Public protest, not politicians, is the only reason the nuns won't own the new maternity hospital.

Irish Independent

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