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Kathy Sheridan: Maternity hospital debate hijacked by fear and loathing

Having a balanced view on the issues is not tolerated in this toxic environment

The fear and loathing surrounding the National Maternity Hospital debate always drops us back to the same terrifying landscape. Nuns and their media shills.

Observe the trolling of a female journalist whose stellar reporting during the Repeal campaign made her a must-read for the pro-choice side. When she outed herself as a Catholic, it caused barely a rustle – until she wrote a calm analysis of the National Maternity Hospital while omitting to savage the let’s-just-build-the-damn-thing camp. Cue the wrath of Twitter, much of it from erstwhile admirers. Being Catholic while reporting renders you suspect and here’s two fingers to your former service for the resistance.

It’s been a rough few months for the assumption of good faith.

But othering people is a superb deflector from inconvenient truths. What narratives do we choose to exclude when we review the battles for a liberal, tolerant Ireland?

My first serious assignment for this paper was a 1988 High Court case where a young couple were suing a maternity hospital and consultant obstetrician over a failure to monitor both of their twin babies’ hearts while in labour. One was stillborn, the second was delivered with catastrophic injuries.

It was the unshakeable confidence, contempt, and contradictions, the scathing references to labouring mothers’ views on their own bodies and instincts, coming from one eminent medical witness after another that turned it into the talk of the summer.

“That goes to show how unreliable the mother’s opinion of foetal movements are,” blurted an outraged obstetrician when challenged about the mother’s reports of “tumultuous [foetal] kicking” lasting 15 minutes.

The mother’s opinion about labour onset and that of her GP – whom she had troubled herself to visit for confirmation – were regally dismissed. “A patient does not visit her GP if she believes she is in strong labour – she would have been too scared,” another senior man contended about a veteran of several labours.

‘Conflicts of evidence’

People “will have their own views on the extraordinary conflicts of evidence which were thrown up in the course of the proceedings”, said the Irish Times leader, none too subtly.

To my recollection, no female medic of any rank, no midwife/companion, no sister in charge appeared as a witness. This was the culture around women at the nun-free National Maternity Hospital in the 1980s.

Last Monday, when a former master of the Coombe referred to the rejection of the 1951 Mother and Child Scheme as an example of historic Church influence, he was not inaccurate, just a little short on the storyline.

Missing was doctors’ outrage at the proposal to provide a free mother and child service and healthcare for all children up to 16 – a starter NHS but one that threatened to whisk away the medics’ cash cow. “Every woman and every child up to 15 would become a free patient by law,” protested Fine Gael TD and medical doctor TF O’Higgins, “and 60 per cent to 70 per cent of ordinary doctors’ income came from attendance on women and children.”

When the obstetrician Dr Michael Neary ripped the wombs from 129 women at the Medical Missionaries of Mary-run Lourdes Hospital, it alarmed a couple of midwives sufficiently to report him. This was an era when the consultants’ writ trumped all others, remember. Three eminent obstetricians called upon to audit his work cleared him of any wrongdoing (“motivated by compassion and collegiality”, as judge Maureen Harding Clarke’s report put it nicely), clearing the way for his return to work, only for him to be exposed months later by an independent English expert. The punishment for the three was a light tap on the wrist from the Medical Council.

Convoluted

None of this is to denigrate legitimate concerns about any Catholic ethos pervading a publicly funded hospital, just a reminder that situations can be complex and convoluted, as Sinn Féin’s health spokesman describes the new hospital contract. But even David Cullinane accepts that the nuns have divested themselves of St Vincent’s. On Monday, while the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group was declaring itself “a secular organisation”, Dr Peter Boylan tweeted pictures of Catholic paraphernalia – a wooden crucifix, a Zambian mission hospital collection box, a notice about the streaming of Sunday Mass, apparently in a corridor – which he said were taken an hour before in the “fully secular” (his quotes) St Vincent’s Hospital.

Among the inevitable angry responses calling for a shutdown of all religious iconography and chaplains etc, a staff member calmly noted that the picture selection was from the private hospital where she often uses the oratory for some peace and quiet.

Meanwhile the SVHG chair was assuring people that all religious iconography at St Vincent’s public hospital will be removed in the coming months.

We are a country in transition. It’s not hot news to women who have bled into this turf for many decades to be told repeatedly that we trust no one. But even that fails to explain why trailblazing women such as Dr Rhona Mahony and dozens of female obstetricians and midwives who ran the medical frontline for Repeal the 8th are suddenly dismissed as illiterate know-nothings.

What is sad and striking is that it was a women’s hospital that became the vehicle by which to vent a long-burning rage. A vital hospital site stands empty as the goalposts are moved, fears are stoked, attention seized and costs soar.

Meanwhile half the State-owned maternity units built on public land still offer no abortion services.

What does that tell us in 2022?