Colette Sheridan: A Catholic ethos has no place in our new maternity hospital

Catholicism has no place in maternity wards, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: A Catholic ethos has no place in our new maternity hospital

PROTEST: Women on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin, in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast train to buy contraceptives.

IT’S kind of hard to believe that there will be no religious influence on the new National Maternity Hospital, given the fact that the Sisters of Charity own the south Dublin site at St Vincent’s University Hospital.

It will be leased to the State for the new hospital. A subsidiary of the religious order, St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG), has been given the go-ahead by the State to operate the facility.

But the order’s tainted history, which saw it running the Magdalene Laundries, should be enough to worry anyone concerned about women’s reproductive health and rights. And there is plenty to worry about.

Three years after the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment was passed, just under half of maternity hospitals still do not offer abortion services.

One in ten GPs are providing abortion services, posing a particular problem for women living in rural Ireland, as well as marginalised women who may find it hard to travel outside their area, according to Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

She has said that, on average, one woman a day is still travelling from Ireland to the UK and elsewhere for an abortion. This, Ms O’Connor pointed out, is due to the overly restrictive legislation around the 12-week limit for abortion on request.

Many women find out they’re pregnant around the ten-week mark “so there is a very tight time-frame to request an abortion. We would be calling for wider access into the second trimester.”

It has been an arduous journey for women in this country fighting for reproductive justice. 

Irish feminists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive train last month. The utterly farcical scenario of having to cross the border to avail of contraception (a human right, surely?) was highlighted when a group of spirited women boarded a train in Dublin to go to Belfast and ambush a pharmacy, where they bought condoms, later to be blown up like balloons on the riotous journey back.

They couldn’t buy the pill on demand as a prescription was required. But instead, they flaunted Disprin, masquerading as contraceptives, for symbolic purposes.

That evening, some of the women, including trailblazers Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty, went on The Late Late Show to talk about their shenanigans up north.

The TV appearance was appropriate as sex didn’t commence in Ireland until the dawning of Gay Byrne’s often ground-breaking chat show.

What a country, eh? Obsessed with sex in terms of condemning it, we had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

I’d like to say it must all seem very strange to today’s young women. But there is still a hangover from those dark days when having sex could see you locked up in a home for ‘fallen women’.

The new holding company, which is set to own the new maternity hospital, has an oversight role. Legally, the government can’t compel a private Catholic entity to provide services that go against its ethos.

The constitution of this new company, St Vincent’s Holdings, sets its healthcare delivery in a religious framework. Its ‘main object’ links service provision with ethical compliance. Its directors are legally bound to uphold the Catholic values of Mary Aikenhead, the founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity.

Labour Senator, Ivana Bacik, has urged the Government to reconsider it's position on the new National Maternity Hospital, to ensure that governance of the hospital will not be influenced by any religious doctrinal ethos.

Senator Bacik said: “Unless this hospital is built on State-owned land, concerns remain that a Catholic religious ethos will hold some influence over the healthcare that the hospital will offer to women.

“The new maternity hospital should have a secular charter, unfettered by any religious doctrine. I remain concerned the governance arrangements currently proposed will still allow for the influence of Catholic ethos on the type of care provided to patients.”

Senator Bacik added: “It is wholly inappropriate that the Catholic Church should retain any influence over decisions relating to women and our healthcare.

“We need to ensure that Ireland is a truly secular and pluralist society, a true republic in which the church and State are separated.”

We all know what happened to Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old dentist, who died of septicaemia at University Hospital Galway when she was 17 weeks pregnant.

She became very unwell and having been told she was miscarrying, and in terrible pain, asked that the pregnancy be terminated.

This was refused, Savita’s husband said, because there was still a foetal heartbeat and the couple was allegedly told, “this is a Catholic country.”

If that is Catholicism, most women of child-bearing age would want nothing to do with it as exemplified by the successful vote to repeal the 8th.

Catholicism has no place in maternity wards.

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