Mater hospital nuns must stand up to bullying – as they have done before

Opinion: People would support the Mercy sisters financially with any legal costs

The Mater: where the sisters stood up to the Black and Tans. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sr Eugene Nolan has written a fascinating history of the Mater hospital, Caring for the Nation, published by Gill & Macmillan. She describes tense times in 1921 when the military authorities realised wanted men were being treated at the Mater. Orders were issued that anyone suffering wounds caused by bullets, gunfire and other explosives was to be reported that day. Meanwhile, the Black and Tans had taken patients from other hospitals and shot them.

The smaller Dublin hospitals agreed to comply but the Mater continued to treat all comers.

The Black and Tans began to raid at unpredictable times but the Mater did not waver. It treated hundreds of wounded British soldiers returning from the first World War but would not comply with unjust orders, despite the risks.

Sr Eugene, a former midwife who works in the hospital’s nurse education centre, was interviewed this week about complying with legislation that allows for abortion in the case of suicide. She was anxious to establish that the Mater’s excellent record of care for mothers and babies in difficult pregnancies would continue. She said babies who would have been terminated in Britain are cared for in the Mater and, while life-saving treatment for mothers takes place, targeting of the unborn has never taken place and never will.


'Frontier of compassion'
A statement issued by the Mater board gave the opposite impression: "The Mater hospital has carefully considered the [Protection of Life During Pregnancy] Act. The hospital's priority is to be at the frontier of compassion, concern and clinical care for all patients. Having regard to that duty, the hospital will comply with the law as provided for in the Act."

Are we supposed to read “all patients” as both mother and baby, which would preclude abortion on the grounds of suicide? If so, how can the hospital “comply with the law as provided for in the Act”?

Even Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, president of the Mater, does not know, as he is to “seek clarification” as to what the statement means.

It was perhaps designed as a holding statement but it was a desperately unwise move. The Mater, like every other hospital that has ethical concerns about provisions of the Act, is facing a blustering Minister for Health, James Reilly, who says they have no right to object.

No doubt there are people in the Mater saying that as it is not a maternity hospital, the staff should just keep their heads down and go on giving the best possible treatment to mother and baby. It won’t work. The board’s statement issues a blank cheque to the Minister. While there is currently a very strong pro-life ethos in the Mater, changes in the law will very quickly undermine that as abortion becomes normalised

Constitutional challenge
According to some commentators, the declaration that no institution has a right to conscientious objection renders the Act vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Law lecturer Dr Mark Coen, who agrees with the Act, says: "The fact that the pregnant woman has a constitutional right to a termination in certain circumstances does not necessarily mean that right would trump the very strong constitutional right of an institution to freedom of religion."

The weakness of the provision for protection of individual conscience already makes Ireland an outlier, where the only protection is to refer a case to someone else who will carry out an abortion. This would be abhorrent to anyone who has a human rights-based objection to abortion.

Sr Eugene said that the Mercy sisters do not have the money to mount a legal challenge. She need not worry. People are queuing up to represent them pro bono, and thousands of ordinary Catholics would give generously.

The sisters need to ask: what would Catherine McAuley, the gentle visionary who founded their order, do? I spent 13 years as a “Mercy girl” and I am confident she would say: “Have courage. Protect the vulnerable at all costs.”

The sisters and their staff stood up to the Black and Tans. They can stand up to a few bullying, blustering politicians. Take a test case. Lives are at stake, sisters, and we are depending on you.