National maternity hospital: does ownership mean control?

Important questions remain about continued influence of the religious in healthcare

 

At issue in the row over the desperately-needed new national maternity hospital are fundamental questions about ownership and control. The replacement for the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) in Holles Street – to be devloped on the St Vincent’s campus – will be owned “solely” by the Sisters of Charity order through the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. A gift from the State worth some €300 million, some say, because the order owns the land. But does that imply control? Specifically, to impose certain ethical values and a Catholic ethos?

Yes, says former master of the NMH Peter Boylan, whose strong intervention on radio yesterday sparked an impassioned rejoinder from current master, Rhona Mahony. The order’s promises of independence are inadequate, he argued, warning that the hospital might be prevented from providing services: “What about IVF, abortion, gender realignment which will be contrary to the nuns’ beliefs?” It would be wrong for the State to invest such cash in a hospital with “strong religious influence” particularly “given the bad history of the Catholic Church”. Others linked the issue to the order’s failure yet to honour in full its undertaking to the institutional redress scheme.

Mahony’s apparent annoyance at her NMH board colleague was fuelled by a determination to forestall any attempt, as she saw it, to delay or derail the move from Holles Street to what would be a modern hospital set in a campus capable of providing important back-up. They were currently “shoe-horned” into an antiquated facility and the mixing up of the redress issue with this move would simply “punish women”. Her fears that the controversy could disrupt the project are justified, not least given the sorry history of plans to build a new national children’s hospital.

Mahony’s insistence that the NMH’s services are “absolutely protected” – as are “guarantees of clinical independence” – by a “triple lock” of protections including a ministerial veto, appears to ring true. “Ownership was neither here nor there, what matters is control,” she argued.

Minister for Health Simon Harris also promised robust contractual arrangements to ensure no private entity or religious order could profit from the hospital nor could there be any question of religious interference. He denied the hospital was being gifted to the nuns and said the St Vincent’s Group was making available “very valuable land at no cost to the State”.

The Minister’s statement left unanswered important underlying questions about the continued influence of the religious in healthcare. But in the case of the NMH, it is open to the Sisters of Charity to defuse this controversy by clarifying its understanding of the new hospital’s independence. Sr Agnes Reynolds’s ambiguous statement that it will “always respect the rights of the mother and the baby” is insufficient.

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