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Pro-life or pro-choice? St Vincent's board has huge moral decision to make


Jimmy Menton Chairman of St Vincents Health Care group,pictured outside  St Vincents Hospital.

Jimmy Menton Chairman of St Vincents Health Care group,pictured outside St Vincents Hospital.

Jimmy Menton Chairman of St Vincents Health Care group,pictured outside St Vincents Hospital.

The big winners in the battle over the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) are the doctors and accountants on the board of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG). Not only will they own the new maternity hospital, they now effectively own and run the three hospitals the Order of the Sisters of Charity founded but is now quitting.

We can be certain that the Sisters never wanted hand, act or part in the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH). Without doubt, it was landed on them by the deal negotiated between the boards of the SVHG and the current NMH on Holles Street.

To this extent, the order was in agreement with its critics about the ownership of the hospital and therefore it did not deserve the utter vilification that came its way.

It is amazing to contrast how we refrain from any criticism of Islam compared with the way we often demonise Catholicism. Anything bad done in the name of Islam isn't 'true Islam', but anything bad done in the name of Catholicism is the truest expression of Catholicism.

What's disappointing is that the nuns have also quit the hospitals they themselves founded - that is, St Vincent's public and private and St Michael's in Dún Laoghaire. Was this really the only way to get out from under the proposed maternity hospital? Could they not have quit the latter without also quitting their own hospitals?

The nuns are obviously very elderly for the most part now and dwindling rapidly in number. Their day-to-day involvement with their hospitals is already a thing of the past and there were only two of them on the board of the SVHG.

Could they not have placed their three hospitals (not the new maternity hospital) under a trust that would continue to have a Catholic ethos? Was there a good reason why they didn't do this?

If the order's plan reaches completion, the SVHG facilities will no longer be run in compliance with 'The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code', but in accordance with 'national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland'.

This implies that the present ethical code is at variance with best practice, an extremely questionable proposition.

But it is a fact that the Catholic ethos of the two St Vincent's hospitals and St Michael's has been weak for some time now anyway. Remember, the board of the SVHG said in 2013 that it would be willing to perform abortions under the terms of the abortion law of that year. How is that compatible with a Catholic ethos?

In other words, the influence of the order over the hospitals it founded was already a shadow of its former self. The nuns seem intent on making de jure what was already increasingly the case de facto.

The question now is, what happens to the remaining Catholic hospitals around the country? Catholic facilities account for very roughly one in six hospital beds in Ireland and with the Order of the Sisters of Charity quitting its hospitals, this will drop to roughly one in eight or nine. Most of the remaining beds are in private, not public, hospitals. Only the most hardened secularists would also seek to close down the country's private Catholic hospitals, as well as the publicly funded ones.

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Should there be publicly funded Catholic hospitals in the future for people who don't have private health insurance? I think there should be, so long as there is public demand for them.

I don't believe all State-funded hospitals (or schools) should be State-run. I think they should be run the way the public wants them to be run because we pay the taxes and if the public wants a variety of hospital managers, then who or what is the State to say otherwise? It is our servant, not our master.

The real debate isn't even whether the Church, the State, or something else should run our hospitals. It is what ethos should govern them, and the question of all questions is whether the ethos is pro-life or pro-choice.

In a way, it is a distraction whether the ethos of a hospital is Catholic or not. The Catholic/Christian medical ethos differs very little from that of Hippocrates, who was born in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC and who gave us the Hippocratic Oath.

Even though the words, 'first, do not harm' don't appear directly in the oath, they capture the essence of it. The oath commits doctors to never harm a patient, never mind kill a patient deliberately.

In fact, part of the oath says: "I will never administer poison to anyone - even when asked to do so. Nor will I ever suggest a way that others (even the patient) could do so. Similarly, I will never induce an abortion."

Christian medical ethics very much stand in this tradition, which is why it is entirely perverse to try to set Christian or Catholic medical ethics against medical 'best practice'. How can it be 'best practice' to harm, never mind kill, a patient?

A pro-choice ethos represents the most enormous rupture in a Western medical tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks. A pro-choice ethos gives doctors permission to kill their patients in particular circumstances.

When a pregnant woman is treated in a hospital, the doctor knows that he or she is dealing with two patients; the mother and her unborn baby.

But in a pro-choice hospital, the doctor will end the life of the second patient if asked. A hospital that permits assisted suicide will kill the old and infirm if asked.

We have to understand how very radical this is. True medicine is about preserving life, not taking it. An ethos that authorises the killing of patients in certain circumstances is utterly at variance with this and is, in fact, a deep corruption of medicine. It is no comfort that this corruption of medicine has taken over so much of the modern medical profession in so many countries.

Indeed, variations on the Hippocratic Oath are now commonplace and turn the original oath on its head. One version, dating back to 1964 and used in a number of US medical schools, explicitly gives doctors permission to kill their patients in given circumstances.

It says: "If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty."

If Irish medical law eventually gives doctors permission to kill some of their patients via abortion or assisted suicide, members of the board of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group are going to have to decide whether or not they want to go along with this. The fact the nuns are leaving now places this momentous decision squarely on board members. They have to decide whether their basic governing philosophy is pro-choice or pro-life. They must decide whether they stand with the ancient Western medical philosophy that believes in preserving life, or whether they will side with those who believe it is sometimes permissible for doctors to take the life of a patient.