Comment & Analysis

Nasty nuns – a lethally convenient caricature
The debate over Ireland’s new maternity hospital is really about abortion, writes David Quinn

The current national maternity hospital, on Dublin’s Holles Street, which is no longer considered fit for purpose.

Nuns in Ireland have been so stereotyped in Irish public debate that they have been reduced to the role of the villain in an old-fashioned Hammer horror movie.

The archetype of this villainous nun is the character played by Geraldine McEwan in The Magdalene Sisters, which Irish TV channels love to air. As played by McEwan the head nun, Sr Bridget, is full of vicious intent.

In one scene we see her shaving the head of one of the girls with sadistic relish and then she beats two girls on the back of the legs with a cane until welts appear. (By the way, the official report into the Magdalene laundries conducted by Martin McAleese spoke to 100 former inmates of these institutions. They experienced mental cruelty but none reported experiencing or witnessing anyone being beaten or having their heads shaved).

In any event, ‘Sr Bridget’ is now the image of nuns many people have fixed in their heads when they think of nuns at all. It is no longer the nuns of The Sound of Music, much less real-life nuns like Mother Teresa, or Sr Consilio here in Ireland who has spent her life caring for addicts, or all the other nuns helping to care for countless number of people across the country.

When news emerged (or rather re-emerged) that the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is to be built on a site on the southside of Dublin owned by the St Vincent’s Healthcare Trust and is to be owned by that Trust, all hell broke loose because the Sisters of Charity own the Trust.

The Trust has a 14-person board and two elderly Sisters sit on it. The new maternity hospital will replace the current one on Holles Street which is no longer considered fit for purpose. After tortuous negotiations between Holles Street and the Trust, it was agreed that the new maternity hospital would have full independence although the Trust, and therefore the Sisters, will own it.

This deal was first announced last November to no fuss but last week it somehow found its way back into the papers and all the attention fastened on to the fact that the Sisters of Charity would own the new hospital even though they would have no say over it.


There were two concerns. The first is that a religious order would own a maternity hospital in this day and age. The second is the fear that, reassurances aside, the nuns would still have some influence over it and this would be bad for women.

The way something Bishop Kevin Doran said was reported fed the second fear. He told The Sunday Times: “A healthcare organisation bearing the name Catholic, while offering care to all who need it, has a special responsibility…to Catholic teachings about the value of human life and the dignity and the ultimate destiny of the human person.”

He said that if a Catholic hospital receives public funds, that responsibility does not change.

All of this is true but of course the new maternity hospital will not be run according to a Catholic ethos, and won’t be a Catholic hospital. Bishop Doran knows this and was simply telling The Sunday Times what a Catholic hospital is required to do. 

However, the Sisters of Charity should be concerned that if Ireland’s abortion law is liberalised within the next few years, then it is extremely likely that abortions will routinely take place in Irish maternity hospitals including in the new one.

Whether or not they have any say over the new hospital (they won’t), how acceptable is that abortions may take place on land owned by a Catholic religious order? It shouldn’t be acceptable at all.

This would seem to mean that the Sisters of Charity should either require the St Vincent’s Healthcare Trust to withdraw from that deal (the Trust seems to be investigating that possibility), or else they should sell the required amount of land to the proposed new maternity hospital if they can.


Quite aside from the specific deal that has been causing all the controversy, there is a background assumption in this debate that needs to be strongly challenged and it is this: Catholic teaching is a danger to pregnant women’s health. 

The assumption is that a woman in a Catholic maternity hospital will be more poorly looked after than a woman in a hospital governed by a more ‘objective’ ethos. 

A recent report called ‘Healthcare Denied’, from the American Council of Civil Liberties, which is strongly pro-choice, purported to show that Catholic hospitals are a danger to pregnant women. It produced some anecdotal evidence (including a misreading of the Savita Halappanavar case), but notably it had no hard data to show that health outcomes for expectant mothers who attend Catholic hospitals are worse than for pregnant women who attend other kinds of hospitals.

The big issue here is, of course, abortion and whether a maternity hospital should be pro-life or pro-choice. 

A pro-life hospital will end a pregnancy when it is necessary to save the life of the mother, but it will not terminate a pregnancy for any other reason. Pro-choice maternity hospitals routinely perform abortions. 

In other words, a pro-life hospital will look after both mother and baby, while a pro-choice hospital will end an unborn child’s life if that is what the mother wants. 

It should be clear from this that it is the pro-choice ethos, not the pro-life one which is the much greater threat to health and life. But why worry about this when we can caricature the nuns instead?