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By David Quinn

Those campaigning against the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) relocating from its present location on Holles Street in Dublin to the St Vincent’s campus can never seem to explain how the Catholic Church would be able to stop abortions taking place there in the future.

Do they envisage a nun or, even more ludicrously, a Vatican official bursting into the maternity hospital on the day it finally opens and being able to veto all procedures they dislike, and all because a shortsighted government had walked into a carefully laid legal trap?

Peter Boylan, a former master at Holles Street, seems to think something like this is a realistic scenario, even though I don’t see many in the medical or legal profession agreeing with him. Recently 52 doctors sent a letter to Micheál Martin, the taoiseach, and Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, urging the government to get on with the move.

The doctors argued that the deal covering the relocation contains “unbreakable legal stipulations” which ensure that all procedures allowed under Irish law will be provided at the hospital. The letter says these include practices the Catholic Church opposes, such as “abortion, tubal ligation, gender-affirming surgery and assisted reproduction”. Among the signatories are Shane Higgins, the present master of the NMH, and his predecessors Rhona Mahony, Michael Robson and Declan Keane.

No prominent obstetrician who played a public role in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment seems to share Boylan’s concerns.

Boylan suggests we should be given access to any correspondence between the Vatican and the Religious Sisters of Charity about their request to relinquish ownership of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG). He believes the Vatican would never have approved “the creation of a company which will facilitate the building of a hospital in which procedures directly contrary to Catholic teaching will take place”.

I agree with Boylan that we should see the correspondence, if it exists. That’s because my preference is that this deal be stopped in its tracks, and I think the nuns should never have given up their control of St Vincent’s private and public hospitals, or St Michael’s in Dun Laoghaire. The NMH should have been told to go elsewhere. In my view, abortions should not take place on land once owned by the Catholic Church. So if publication of any correspondence can scupper this project, so much the better.

What I suspect, however, is that the nuns may have told the Vatican that St Vincent’s Healthcare Group will adhere to the values of Mary Aikenhead, the founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity. If so, this would not prevent abortions taking place at the new NMH, because terminations were performed at St Vincent’s when it was still under the control of the nuns. Mary Higgins, an obstetrician at the NMH who campaigned to repeal the eighth amendment in 2018, confirmed this to the Oireachtas health committee last Wednesday. If the nuns could not stop terminations being performed before they surrendered ownership, how could they do so after they leave the scene?

Boylan told the committee last Thursday: “It’s about time we stood up for ourselves as a people, faced down the church, and said, ‘We need that land, thank you.’” In this case, however, there is no church to stand up to; it has already gone.

Critics of the deal still insist the constitution of the SVHG could be used to stop abortions because it refers to the “mission” of Aikenhead. The constitution says it will strive to carry out this mission in the present day by being “true to its core values” of “human dignity”, “compassion”, “justice”, “quality” and “advocacy”.

Human dignity is a term sometimes used by pro-life advocates and frequently appears in papal documents. Under advocacy, the constitution promises that the SVHG will “speak for the voiceless” — another phrase pro-life campaigners like to use. But to believe these terms are somehow Trojan horses from which nuns will one day leap in order to prevent procedures contrary to Catholic teaching being performed brings us into the realms of fantasy.

Like Senator Joseph McCarthy seeing Communist plots everywhere in the 1950s, we are now being led to believe that sinister nuns will one day succeed in dragging Ireland back to the past, all because the naive refused to heed the warnings. The campaign is drawing on a deep feeling of ill will towards the Catholic Church that has built up in Ireland, some of which is understandable but much of which has become as excessive as the anti-British sentiment that still lingers.

The ill will explains why both sides of this argument are equally horrified at any suggestion that a religious ethos could “interfere” with the operation of the NMH. But let’s take religion out of the picture, for the sake of the argument, and ask at the most basic level what the role of a hospital, and medicine itself, should be. In my view it should be to heal and never to harm, a philosophy that dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Hippocrates, who lived almost 400 years before the birth of Christ.

Part of Hippocrates’ famous oath says: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.” This rules out assisted suicide as well as termination of pregnancy.

Catholic medical ethics essentially embraces the Hippocratic vision of medicine. Therefore when an objection is raised to a Catholic ethos governing a hospital, in a way it is the rationalistic philosophy of the Ancient Greeks that is being rejected. Turning our backs on Hippocratic philosophy means that in a few more years we will probably allow assisted suicide, and many Irish hospitals will be happy to carry it out, especially those committed to performing any “medical” procedure legally permissible in the state. In principle, this rules out nothing. It obliterates the very idea of a hospital having a governing ethos of its own, one that allows it to say no to the state. Whatever the state permits, hospitals will perform, no matter how ethically objectionable.

At present, nothing associated with the Catholic Church can be calmly discussed, and therefore a dispassionate debate about the direction of Irish medicine cannot take place. That is why we have found ourselves in the middle of a modern version of a red scare, with the nuns standing in for the communists.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 15th May 2022. Re-printed here with permission.


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