Sisters of Charity must be allowed exercise their conscience too

Such is the anxiety to get out of Holles St it appears the Sisters have been put under pressure, if not duress, to accept the new National Maternity Hospital under terms currently agreed

Dr Rhona Mahony, Master, National Maternity Hospital: The need for the new National Maternity Hospital at St Vincent’s in Elm Park is “unarguable”. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Dr Rhona Mahony, Master, National Maternity Hospital: The need for the new National Maternity Hospital at St Vincent’s in Elm Park is “unarguable”. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

In a weekend interview the Master at Holles Street Hospital in Dublin, Rhona Mahony, was clear. The need for the new National Maternity Hospital at St Vincent’s in Elm Park, owing to conditions at Holles Street, was “unarguable”, “unassailable”, “a simple, clinical imperative”, she said.

“It would be terrible if it was stopped because of a sideshow. When the next woman dies, how will the conversation go then?” Indeed. And “there’s the rub”, as Hamlet might say, the nub of this “sideshow.”

Speaking of “the next woman” in this context Dr Mahony may have been referring to Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old Indian woman who died in October 2012 at University Hospital Galway a week after she was found to be miscarrying.Her husband, Praveen, said she asked several times over three days for a termination and this was refused because the foetal heartbeat was still present and, as one midwife said, “this is a Catholic country”.

One of Dr Mahony’s predecessors as Master at Holles St, Dr Peter Boylan, was an expert witness at an inquiry and at the inquest into Halappanavar’s death.

Clearly he too is anxious that there will be no “next woman” to die in circumstances similar to those in which Halappanavar lost her life.

This is likely the reason he is so much more anxious than the board at Holles St about who will own the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH).

Under present arrangements and despite repeated assurances, the jury remains out on whether the dominant ethos at the new maternity hospital at Elm Park will be that which currently prevails at Holles St or that which currently prevails at St Vincent’s, where the Catholic ethos of the Sisters of Charity is as holy writ.

Should it be the latter and another Savita-type case arises in time at the new NMH in the St Vincent’s campus “…how will the conversation go then?”

Long-term lease

It is imperative this matter is securely and unequivocally established before a sod is turned for the new National Maternity Hospital at St Vincent’s. It appears the site there cannot be sold as it is collateral for bank loans.

So it would appear the only option available to the State just now would be to take out a long-term lease on the site securing its ownership and full control at the new hospital well into the future.

Otherwise, a new site must be found. And alternatives are available nearby, at RTÉ or Elm Park golf course.

But there is another unacknowledged element in all of this. Why should the Sisters of Charity be placed in a position where the State expects they must violate conscience to carry out its will by implementing its laws?

Such is the anxiety to get out of Holles St it appears the Sisters have been put under pressure, if not duress, to accept the new National Maternity Hospital under terms currently agreed.

Clearly, through having four representatives on a nine-member board at the new hospital, as well as control of a sub-committee which will select the new board’s chair, they hope never to be in a position of having to agree to something they cannot accept. But should they ever have been faced with that contingency?

In this Republic it ought to be realised, accepted, and agreed that they too have a right to live by their beliefs in good conscience and not to be coerced to do otherwise by the “unarguable”, the “unassailable”, or “a simple, clinical imperative” as deemed by others. Which is not to deny those imperatives.

But they are not the only ones.

‘The other side’

It is a sad fact that when it comes to debate on reproductive health in Ireland, it is a given that “the other side” is acting in bad faith. Pro-life people simply cannot seem to get it into their heads that not everyone accepts that human life begins at conception.

And pro-choice people think it just obdurate that anyone can believe a mere biological reaction such as a fertilised ovum ought to be accorded the full dignity deserving of all human beings.

Away from both extremes, and the source of some hope, is that a growing majority of Irish people who appreciate that the journey of life in the womb from conception to birth is a nuanced progression from the biological to the human and where little is unarguable, unassailable, or imperative.

The wonder of it all demands respect and no small measure of goodwill as people wrestle with such issues of life and death, remembering the ideal is to be aimed for, yet rarely achieved. But aspiration must not be allowed to brutalise humanity, to ensure, as Yeats put it, that “the body is not bruised to pleasure soul.”

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent

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