The news came to the fore yesterday that the new National Maternity Hospital was to be placed under the ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters of Charity is a religious group who in the past were one of the groups who ran the Magdalene Asylums. Under their watch, terrible abuses were carried out on mothers and children alike. In State redress schemes since the news broke of what went on inside these Mother and Baby Homes, the Sisters of Charity have neglected to pay their fair share. In 2013 the Sisters of Charity, along with the three other religious congregations which managed Magdalene laundries, announced that they would not be making any contribution to the State redress scheme for women who had been in the laundries. The Sisters of Charity were involved in five industrial schools – including St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s, Kilkenny and Madonna House in Dublin. They were party to a €128m redress scheme with the State in 2002 for child abuse which took place. According to a December 2016 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Sisters of Charity offered €5m towards the redress scheme – but have only paid €2m. They are currently in debt to the state, and the victims as a result, to the tune of 3 million. So, gifting them a hospital sounds par for the course, right? Only in Ireland.
Ireland in 2017 is still in the grips of the Catholic Church despite a sharp move from the control of the church over the mass public from the late 1990s. Tales of abuses, deaths and horrific life altering experiences shoved under the rug have moved public opinion away from the infallibility of the Church. We’ve become, in theory, a more secular state. The introduction of Educate Together schools and more secular policies has been a move towards the light in the journey towards separation of Church and State. We are no longer in de Valera’s Ireland, under the sharp glance of Archbishop McQuaid.
Still though, it seems each time we feel like we’re making progress, a stumbling block comes tumbling our way. Or rather, in this case, a stumbling building site full of blocks. As the Repeal movement grows in size and pressure increases on the government to improve maternal health rights, we are reminded that the Church is always there, ready to seize control over our ovaries once more.
I recently spent the night in an Emergency department corridor, with a picture of the Virgin Mary staring down at me. It was a religiously run hospital, it wasn’t a particular surprise. More of a surprise was the assumption of my religion on my hospital forms, it seemed to have automatically been put down as Roman Catholic, something I haven’t defined myself as in over a decade. It was inconsequential for me, the visit didn’t include any procedures or risks to my health that would have invoked a need for religion. But there the Virgin Mary was, staring down at me as I tried to tune out the coughs, the drunk singing and the shouts from the rest of the corridor to get some sleep.
It’s not as if the abuses carried out on pregnant women, new mothers and their children are a relic of the long forgotten past. The horrors of the Tuam Babies case, where innocent babies were left undocumented in a mass grave by the Bons Secours sisters came to light in recent months, reminding us of our shameful past. We were a complicit society but we have changed – or have we? Is it really for the best to allow these organisations who ran these asylums the power over a maternity hospital? We don’t need any more help to tangle those rosaries around our ovaries, the 8th amendment is ensuring the knots are tight enough.
The reasoning behind the granting of the hospital, which will cost the Irish taxpayer 300 million euro, to the Sisters of Charity is unclear. It’s being done under the name of the St Vincent’s Group, who own the land the hospital is to be built on, of which the Sisters of Charity are the majority shareholder. The organisation, despite reneging on promises to pay their debts to those who suffered under their watch, still retains ownership of the Sacred Heart Centre in Waterford, which is owed to the State.
The man who brokered the decision to handover a 300 million euro hospital states that the two should be seperate issues; that the redress schemes are a “historic concern” and “should be addressed in another forum”. Surely the point of looking at our history is to ensure that mistakes are not made and remade?
We are being told that there won’t be a religious influence on the treatment of women in these hospitals, but it has been made clear in recent years that hospitals run by religious institutions don’t have to carry out procedures that are against their religious ethos. This in particular effects the treatment of women and their reproductive rights. If treatment through religious ethos is what rules the actions of doctors on their payroll, it is possible that restrictions may be present on patients attempting to undergo IVF, medically necessitated legal abortions or the performance of tubal litigation. None of this has been made clear, and that is where the worry kicks in.
It’s not that this issue is new to the table, it’s been in the planning for years. The government has watched on as more reports of mistreatment under the control of these religious groups come to the fore. Society is moving forward to the realisation that placing control over education and healthcare into religious organisations is no longer acceptable in our modern, more secular Ireland. Our government may be slow to bring forward a referendum on the 8th amendment, but if they think that furthering the cause of the religious organisations in maternity care is the right move, then they may be even slower on the uptake than we first thought.
This isn’t a rant against religion, or those who are of the Catholic faith. It’s a rant at how taxpayer money, which is paid universally, is being spent, and how our government seems to not understand their past mistakes. Why hasn’t a deal been brokered to incorporate the land for state use, as a method of paying off the redress scheme? Why have the worries of experts in the field like Dr Peter Boylan (former Master of the National Maternity Hospital) been listened to? Why not bring in compulsory purchase orders like those given to people who live “in the way” of our road developments? Reports from those behind the decisions have stated that they don’t think the nuns will play an active role – that doesn’t sound like a guarantee to me by any means.
As it stands, nearly 37000 signatures and rapidly growing are on a petition here, compelling Simon Harris to step in and do the right thing by the Irish women and children who will use the new National Maternity Hospital. Whether our shouts and screams will be listened to by government is another question altogether.