Comment & Analysis

Sisters of Charity were caught between a rock and a hard place
Society has to decide what the governing ethos of its hospitals should be, writes David Quinn
Kay Connolly, Chief Operating Officer of St Vincent’s University Hospital with Minister for Health, Simon Harris and Dr Rhona Mahony, Master at Holles Street, looking at the plans for the new National Maternity Hospital.

News that the Sisters of Charity are ending their involvement with the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG), and therefore with the three hospitals that come under the group, is very sad. In retrospect, the sisters should never have let the group (the board is lay-dominated) agree to the new national maternity hospital being built on their land, but they were between a rock and hard place.

It is clear that both the State and the board of the current National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street wanted the new hospital to be built on the southside Dublin campus on which St Vincent’s public and private hospitals are located.

Pressure appears to have been put on St Vincent’s to this end. Only two nuns sit on the 14-person board of the SVHG (the rest are doctors and accountants for the most part), and the nuns probably went along with whatever decision was made.

Control

The deal was originally announced last November. It was clear then that the planned hospital would be owned by the SVHG and therefore by the Sisters of Charity who control it, but there was no uproar then. Uproar only ensued in April when The Irish Times ran a story to the effect that the Sisters of Charity had, apparently, not yet paid the full amount they promised to the redress scheme established to compensate victims of abuse. 

They were €2 million short of the €5 million they promised, according to a report of the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee.

It subsequently emerged, although it was barely reported, that the nuns have in fact met their promise by waiving the millions in legal fees owed to them by the redress board. This fact made no difference, they still found themselves thoroughly demonised. They had run some of the country’s Magdalene laundries, and the public was endlessly reminded of this fact. This made them completely unfit to have anything to do with women’s health, ran the narrative.

By this reckoning, the State is also unfit to have anything to do with the nation’s health because its failings are also many, including its running of the country’s mental hospitals in the last century where many abuses took place.

Forgotten was all the good the Sisters of Charity did and do. These were ably laid out by Victoria White in a recent column in The Irish Examiner. Ms White is a member of the Church of Ireland but among other things reminded readers that the sisters, when they set up in 1834, risked their own lives to help cholera victims when almost no-one else would.

In subsequent decades, they provided healthcare to countless numbers of poor people who otherwise would have received no healthcare at all. They are still doing that. But in the current mood of anti-Catholicism few wanted to hear this, and even if they did, they weren’t given a chance to hear it. Demonisation was the name of the game.

The uproar over the nuns and the maternity hospital happened as the same time as the deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly concerning abortion. The real fear on the part of those who want Ireland to change its pro-life law is that abortions could not take place in the new maternity hospital if the nuns owned it. This explained much of the fury and outrage.

It didn’t pacify them that the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group said hospitals on its campus would carry out any procedures lawful in the land. Nor did it pacify them that the current Master of the National Maternity, Dr Rhona Mahony said the new maternity hospital would have full clinical independence.

The SVHG itself said it would carry out any procedure lawful in the land. It said the same back in 2013 when our first abortion law was passed.

This policy is doubly clear from the Sisters of Charity statement announcing their decision to quit the SVHG. It says when they do so, the hospitals under it will no longer have a Catholic ethos.

The key paragraph of the statement says: “Upon completion of this proposed transaction, the requirement set out in the SVHG Constitution, to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code, will be amended and replaced to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland.”

What will the law be in the future? If the law permits abortion, then the clear implication of this statement is that all three of the current SVHG hospitals will perform abortions, as well as the National Maternity Hospital. And if the law in the future permits assisted suicide, then the current three hospitals will do that as well.

This is obviously absolutely unacceptable from a Catholic point of view, and from a pro-life point of view. No hospital should ever set out to deliberately kill a patient, whether the patient be unborn, old or infirm. Anything else is a corruption of medicine.

This is why it is essential that the remaining Catholic hospitals in the country (which account for about one in six hospital beds) take strong steps to protect their ethos. In turn this means ensuring board members understand and believe in a pro-life ethos that firmly rejecting killing patients in the name of ‘choice’.

Society itself has to decide what the governing ethos of its hospitals should be, pro-life or pro-choice? Only the former is in keeping with good medicine. The latter is a terrible negation of good medicine. This should be obvious to anyone and the only reason it isn’t is that even doctors have begun to place ‘choice’ above life itself, a disastrous moral development of the first rank.