The NMH: it’s not about money. It’s about control.


It feels like not a week goes by without another GUBU moment in Irish public life. At this relatively early point in 2017, most of us already have news fatigue from what feels like a constant round of scandals, revelations and condemnations.

For most of the past year I’ve been safely swaddled in the comfort blanket of maternity leave. Spending all your waking hours (and there are a lot of them) looking after a small baby means your media consumption can be restricted to googling ‘baby wind normal’ four or five times a night, and checking out recommendations for cots on a host of Facebook groups catering to the buggy brigade.

The same Facebook groups lit up this week, however, at the latest outrage being perpetrated on the Irish body politic. The female Irish body, to be precise.

News that the new National Maternity Hospital was to be given in sole ownership to the Sisters of Charity has been met with utter incredulity, with disgust, fear and a kind of exhausted “oh what now?” from women’s rights campaigners.

Irish maternity care is constantly in the news. Problems with overcrowding, unsafe practices, the 8th amendment, deaths of women (particularly migrant women) and babies, lack of access to prenatal diagnostics, rows between management and medics, rows over the right to give birth at home… the system is barely coping.

The Irish state does not know how to treat women and children. So it outsources it. Our schools are still mostly run by the church, and our hospitals likewise. And it has ever been thus.

But in this enlightened age, when we know what we know about how women were mistreated and enslaved in Magdalene Laundries, when we know what we know about babies being left to die in Mother and Baby homes, when we know what we know about women with dangerous pregnancies being left to suffer and die in religious-influenced institutions… we’ve done it again.

The decision to give full ownership of the National Maternity Hospital – the place in Ireland that women should feel safest and most protected, and sure of the care they will receive – over to an order of nuns – would be unbelievable if it wasn’t so damned predictable.

The protestations that the nuns will not be running the hospital – funded to the value of €300m by the taxpayers it is being built to serve – are naive at best. They will have representatives on the board. Those representatives will presumably be directed to maintain a Catholic ethos.

Why else would they be there?

And why is the Government prepared to let an arm of the Catholic church retain control over the health of women, the health of babies, and – crucially – the location in which, sometimes, the health of the two may come into conflict?

And why, ask yourself, does a religious congregation want to own a hospital? There are few nursing sisters left; it’s not employment they are after. If it’s money they need – to pay that outstanding redress bill, for example – why not sell what is very valuable land.

This is about control. The religious may no longer have the numbers when it comes to vocations, but they have the numbers where they count – in ledgers and bank accounts, and in folios at the Land Registry. They have ownership, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Religious orders still run many of our disability services, our social services, our schools, hospitals and many other services that should be the responsibility of the State.

Between you and the State you are part of, in almost every interaction you have as a citizen, is the Church quietly shaping it. The services you avail of are not your right as a citizen but charity provided by a religious organisation under its terms and nobody else’s.

If you are gay, or of a different religion, or a woman, you may have felt this tangibly already. You may have been denied employment in an organisation you didn’t even know was Church run, denied recognition of your sexuality at school, denied a place at that school, denied tubal ligation or termination or IVF in a hospital you thought was owned by you, the taxpayer.

Most of us believe the Church’s influence to be on the wane in Ireland. This episode should show us that nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t see a brother in every school or a nun in every hospital. But they are there. They are the ones holding the purse strings. Calling the shots.

The response from those involved in the discussion is that it’s this or nothing. Put up or shut up. But that is not good enough. This decision is a throwback to a time when the country was too poor, too cowed, too under the cosh of the crozier to do things for ourselves. Women deserve better.

– The Herald, Friday 21 April 2017

While researching this article I came across this one, which I wrote in 2013. Interesting to see Bishop Kevin Doran pop up again today in the Sunday Times – confirming that a Catholic-owned hospital will have to adhere to Catholic ethos. Well, knock me over with a feather.

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