With the plans for the new National Maternity Hospital swaddled in controversy, Hannah Lemass examines the reasons behind the row
Plans for the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) may be in jeopardy as the board of St Vincent’s Hospital will review the project amid ongoing criticism.
The plans have faced controversy since it was announced that the St. Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) would have ownership of the new NMH.
The Sisters of Charity are the largest shareholder in the SVHG and will, therefore, be the owners of the new €300 million building.
The planned site for the new National Maternity Hospital, St. Vincent’s University Campus, image Hannah Lemass
Demonstrations took place outside of maternity hospitals nationwide last weekend.
The first protest occurred on Thursday 20 April.
The crowd which included representatives from Parents for Choice and Midwives for Choice gathered outside the Department of Health headquarters on Poolbeg street in Dublin’s city centre.
The lunchtime demonstration was organised by Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan.
She criticised Minister for Health Simon Harris for tweeting on the issue of the new NMH rather than actively engaging in negotiations.
“We would prefer if you actually got involved in the negotiations and didn’t leave it up to the doctors to have to come out and make public statements about what kind of healthcare we should be having in this country.
It’s a minister’s responsibility to take back control of healthcare from the church, put it into medical hands and make sure they are the ones making the decisions”.
Religious institution or independent hospital
“As technology allows us to provide better and better medical care we’re going to have more and more procedures and treatments that the church rejects… the delay that I don’t want is when some form of new stem cell treatment is introduced, the board of the new NMH will have to have months-long negotiations about whether or not they approve it,” Councillor Ryan said.
Critics are fearful that having a religious order as owners will impede patient access to medical procedures that the church does not approve of, such as abortion and fertility treatments.
Former master of the NMH Dr Peter Boylan has been very vocal in his criticism of the plan for the new hospital’s ownership
“Hospitals on land owned by the Catholic Church are obliged to follow Catholic teaching and Canon Law on medical practices and procedures,” he said on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show.
“To believe the new National Maternity Hospital will be the only hospital in the world owned by a Catholic congregation to permit serialisation, IVF, abortion, gender reassignment surgery and any other procedures prohibited by the Church is naive and delusional,” he added.
He was concerned when Sister Agnes Reynolds of the Sisters of Charity – and sitting member of the SVHG board – did not directly comment on the influence the congregation will have at the new NMH.
When asked by The Irish Times what influence the Sisters of Charity would have she said that she “can’t make a judgment on that.”
“What she probably means is that we can’t make a judgment on that now, but wait until the hospital is built and then we will make a judgement call,” Dr Boylan said on Morning Ireland.
Acting Deputy Chairman Nicholas Kearns requested that Dr Boylan resign due to his “public intervention to criticise and oppose the overwhelming majority decision of the Board.”
Initially, Dr Boylan said he would not resign. However, on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show, he revealed that he had in fact submitted a letter of resignation.
“I can no longer remain the member of a board which is so blind to the consequences of its decision to transfer sole ownership of the hospital to the religious Sisters of Charity and so deaf to the disquiet of the public which it serves,” he wrote in his letter of resignation.
Minister Harris’s tweeted that the state will hold a golden share in the ownership of the hospital that will prevent the church from having any power to deny treatment.
On RTÉ’s Today With Sean O’Rourke, current Master of Holles Street Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony said that any suggestion the new hospital will be run by nuns or under a Catholic ethos is not true.
She said that when the NMH moves, it will be an independent hospital with its own independent board “dedicated solely to the provision of gynaecological, maternity and neonatal service.”
The agreement between SVHG and the NMH over the operation of the New Maternity Hospital, as mediated by Kieran Mulvey, was made public on 25 April.
The 25-page document submitted to Simon Harris outlined that the hospital will be operated as a new company officially named The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC and the SVHG will be the sole owner.
The first of several nationwide demonstrations was held on 20 April outside the Department of Health, image by Hannah Lemass
The report also states that “the parties [the SVHG and the NMH] are agreed that the creation of a special golden share in the DAC is the best mechanism to provide legal protection to the inviolability of the “Reserved Powers” arrangement.”
These “Reserved Powers” include:
“a) Clinical and operational independence in the provision of maternity, gynaecology, obstetrics and neonatal services (without religious, ethnic or other distinction) in the hospital at Elm Park, Dublin…
b)Control, utilise and protect all financial and budgetary matters as they relate to The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC (limited by shares)”.
The board of directors at the new NMH will be made up four directors nominated by the SVHG, four nominated by the current NMH, and one independent international expert in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Deputy Chairman of Holles Street Nicholas Kearns wrote in The Irish Times on 26 April that the new hospital “will operate in accordance with the law of the land, not canon law – just as it does now. It will have no religious ethos”.
He also explained that the hospital, which will take about five years to build, will have a ministerial lien which will prevent the Sisters of Charity from being able to borrow against or sell the property.
The City report on the National Maternity Hospital, video by Hannah Lemass
He also said that here is no alternative for the new NMH and that “women will benefit greatly from closer proximity to an acute adult site.”
They have been looking for a new NMH since 1998. He described the current Holles Street location as “dilapidated, antiquated building that is not fit for purpose”
An online petition started by UCD postgraduate student Denise Kiernan has over 100,000 signatures.
The petition calls for the prevention of the Sisters of Charity from becoming ‘sole owners’ of the hospital, for a formal apology from Sisters of Charity and that they pay their share of the redress scheme.
Denise, who is currently taking part in a work placement at Welcome to Justice for Magdalenes, told The City that “we need to stand in solidarity with those who have faced abuse at the hands of religious institutions”.
With no end in sight for this saga, it seems that we will have to wait a bit longer for the already overdue state of the art maternity services that the country requires.
Featured image by Hannah Lemass