Friday 18 October 2019

Catholic ethos is not compatible with National Maternity Hospital

Women's hospital will not be able to function properly and give routine sterilisation or IVF treatment if nuns are at the helm

An artist's impression of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital
An artist's impression of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

The public outcry over the gifting of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to the Sisters of Charity, who own St Vincent's Hospital, has been described by Dr Rhona Mahony - the current Master of Holles Street - as a storm in a teacup.

She said the clinical independence of the proposed state-of-the-art hospital is unequivocal and that the agreement between the two hospitals - NMH and St Vincent's - will result in a fully self-governing maternity hospital free from any outside interference.

I could sense her frustration on Morning Ireland last week, on which she gave a strong and emphatic defence of the project, ending with her saying, in no uncertain terms, that the nuns will have nothing to do with the new maternity hospital.

Of course, she is wrong. They will have something to do with the hospital. They will own it. The State will gift it to them in exchange for us being allowed to build the €300m hospital on their land. Some people have described that as a fair exchange - the land for the hospital - except the Sisters of Charity get to keep the land, too.

But ownership is not where the relationship between the nuns and the hospital ends. The new National Maternity Hospital will be run by a board made up of nine members. Four of these nine will be nominated by the existing NMH. Four of them will be nominated by the sisters. There is little doubt those four will be there to represent the Catholic ethos the sisters believe in and bring to bear on the running of St Vincent's Hospital. This 50-50 split on the board is hardly what you would call independence but at least there is a ninth member - an independent one with a deciding vote.

That member is chosen by a selection committee appointed by the two hospitals - with two out of three members of the selection committee being appointed by St Vincent's. In effect, the ninth member of the NMH board is chosen by St Vincent's, too. So, in fact, they control five out of nine places on the NMH board - a clear majority.

It's also in the agreement that the Master of the NMH will report to the group clinical director of St Vincent's. I'm not sure what your definition of independence is, but this certainly isn't mine.

How did it happen? I asked a board member of the NMH, who spoke to me off the record. How did the nuns get to own the hospital and control the board? "They are extremely skilled negotiators -they were better than us," was the reply. Was it ever put to the sisters that, in view of the fact they can't ever really profit from this piece of land that is stuck in the middle of a hospital, they might just give it to the State as an act of charity, in keeping with their name?

"That was never on the table," the source said. "We knew we'd never get it past them." Why, I asked, do they even want to own a hospital that they allegedly will have nothing to do with (despite having a majority on the board)? A single-word reply: "Control."

Dr Peter Boylan, former master of Holles Street who has resigned from the board of the NMH over this issue, said that if the new NMH is built on land owned by the sisters and manages to maintain an ethos independent of religion, it will be the only hospital on Catholic Church land in the world that has managed to do so.

Dr Chris Fitzpatrick - former master of the Coombe and relocation manager of the proposed move - also resigned from the project board last week, saying: "There must be separation between church and medicine."

Bishop Kevin Doran has said any hospital built on ecclesiastical lands is subject to canon law, which supersedes common law, irrespective of what other legal agreements have been put in place. So we cannot say we haven't been warned.

What strikes me is this: there's a clash between the Church and women's health regarding many routine treatments and procedures such as contraception, sterilisation and IVF. Developing a women's hospital owned by nuns who have an ability to control the governing board, so the ethos of that hospital simply cannot be guaranteed, puts those treatments and procedures in jeopardy.

At best, huge conflict will arise. At worst, women will be denied access to treatments to which they are entitled. Bear in mind vasectomies and sterilisations are rarely allowed in St Vincent's and something as basic as the pill is not prescribed in the Mater Hospital - because both these institutions have a Catholic ethos.

But when that ethos will really be at odds with the work of the NMH is if the Eighth Amendment is repealed and terminations are legalised. Can anyone envisage that being allowed in a hospital owned by nuns, where they control the board?

I haven't even mentioned the financial stupidity of the State spending €300m on something and not ending up owning it. You'd think they'd have learnt their lesson on this already, seeing as how they paid for the St Vincent's site at Elm Park once before when it was first developed - and gave it to the Sisters of Charity back then, too.

Nor have I mentioned the track record of the Sisters of Charity when it comes to the treatment or the respect of Irish women. They ran the Magdalene laundries and were proven to have facilitated the abuse of young women and children in their care.

But the real issue is the ethos. Despite the minister and the master's claims, no legally binding memorandum of agreement is in place - the current terms of agreement are in principle only.

Despite the fact that we desperately need a new premises for our NMH and despite the fact that co-location is a good plan, we need to get the structure and the governance sorted now if this hospital is to be fit for purpose for future generations of women.

And despite the fact that the land is free, in view of all the problems that will most definitely arise from this current plan, you'd have to ask - is the price just too high?

I believe it is.

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