In future, Catholic hospitals may be only ones obeying the precept 'do not kill'
There is a dispute of some kind going on between the managements of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) on the one hand, and the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG) on the other. I can't pretend to fully understand it, but somehow or another, the nuns of the Religious Sisters of Charity have been shoved to the front of it.
The mention of the nuns has had the effect on some people of waving a red flag in front of a bull.
The NMH is due to move from Holles Street to the Elm Park campus on Dublin's southside, where St Vincent's private and public hospitals are located. These come under the SVHG, and in turn this comes under the Religious Sisters of Charity. Two of the sisters sit on the SVHG's 14-person board.
If the NMH moves there, it is due to come under the SVHG, meaning, nominally, the nuns also. What will this mean for the health and welfare of Irish mothers, we have been asked?
The spectre of involuntary adoption, mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and symphysiotomy have all been raised as test-case examples of why nuns, even today, cannot be let next nor near pregnant women. Let us leave all that to one side for a moment, however, and ask whether a relocated National Maternity Hospital would, in fact, be governed by a Catholic ethos. The chairman of the SVHG, Jimmy Menton, has strongly denied this.
In a communication to staff at St Vincent's, he has said: "It is regrettable that media sources have been fed a groundless, sensational tale of nuns attempting to control Irish maternity services."
Menton says that the NMH, if it moves to the Elm Park campus, will have clinical autonomy, its own budget and its own brand. However, there would be "integration" of other aspects of corporate governance.
Is maintaining clinical autonomy, its own budget and its own brand enough for the NMH or does it want to be totally its own fiefdom while at the same time moving onto grounds managed by another body? I don't know. I don't know whether this is really behind the media stories about the 'wicked nuns' conspiring to take control of women's bodies. I don't know what is best here from a purely managerial point of view.
But I do know that raising the spectre of the nuns - with our image of nuns now firmly conditioned by endless repeats of movies like 'The Magdalene Sisters' - is simple scaremongering. The fact is that the nuns are rapidly ageing and dwindling in numbers and even if they had the will, they wouldn't have the capacity to launch a take-over bid of the NMH.
It hard to know how much practical control they even exercise over St Vincent's. Although officially a Catholic hospital, St Vincent's very readily agreed to carry out abortions on its premises under the terms of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This includes abortions when a woman is deemed to be suicidal, even though no study has ever shown that abortion helps suicidal women.
The fact that the nuns could be so easily used to alarm certain sections of society is very telling, however. People used to give the nuns some credit for founding hospitals in the first place, not just here, but all over the world, and for giving their lives over to service.
This is no longer balanced against the negative side of the ledger, it seems.
It cannot be doubted that a highly authoritarian Church often did terrible things, although many of the things it did, such as the running of mother and baby homes and involuntary adoption, happened on a widespread basis in other societies until quite recently, societies in which the Catholic Church had little or no influence.
In Sweden, for instance, a secular, Social Democrat-controlled state, starting in the 1930s and not ending until the 1970s, sterilised tens of thousands of women, including in many cases, single mothers. Sometimes they were forced to have abortions. If the children were born, they were commonly put up for adoption.
But to expect nuns today to do what some of their predecessors did in the past, would be like expecting Social Democrats today in Sweden to do exactly the things their forebears did. To pretend that they would do today what they did then is crude propaganda.
However, it will still be claimed that it is impossible to run a hospital along Catholic lines and provide the best standards of modern medical care because 'Catholic dogma' will keep getting in the way. This is a very big claim in need of plenty of evidence to back it up.
Are there reputable studies showing that, all other things being equal, Catholic hospitals (in the US for instance) have worse patient outcomes than their secular counterparts?
It will, of course, be claimed that a Catholic hospital cannot give proper care to a pregnant woman if an abortion seems necessary to save her life or health.
This obviously brings us straight into the abortion debate. A Catholic hospital knows it is looking after two patients when presented with a pregnant woman. It does its best to look after both patients.
A 'pro-choice' hospital will look after two patients only if the woman wants to have the baby, otherwise it will look after only one.
The question then becomes; which of these hospitals is providing better all-round patient care, the pro-life hospital or the pro-choice one?
This question can be expanded out. What should be the basic governing ethic of the best hospitals; an ethic that says 'do not kill', or a pro-choice one?
A fully pro-choice hospital will not only perform abortions, it will also, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, carry out euthanasia and assisted suicide. It will do this in the name of 'patient autonomy', a principle which increasingly has no limits whatsoever.
It should really be plain and obvious that the hospital which seeks to preserve life is vastly ethically superior to the one which is happy to take life, specifically the lives of unborn children and of the old and infirm, in the name of 'autonomy'.
In the future, it is entirely possible that the only hospitals left in some countries which operate on the principle 'do not kill' will be Catholic ones.
This is an incredible proposition, but an entirely realistic one. And it is beyond appalling that it is the ethos of Catholic hospitals that should be under pressure rather than the growing number of hospitals that are happy to violate the most basic precept of patient care there is: do not kill.