DUBLIN — The Irish government has postponed a decision on a plan to hand over control of a proposed $840 million state-funded maternity hospital to a charity established by an order of Catholic nuns. Abortion rights campaigners and opposition politicians are fighting the plan, saying they fear the charity could apply Catholic teaching on abortion and other issues to the hospital’s operations.
Ireland’s cabinet was set to approve the plan on Tuesday, but delayed a decision for at least two weeks amid growing public controversy, fueled in part by reaction to the leak in the United States of a draft opinion suggesting that the Supreme Court could strike down Roe. v. Wade, the landmark decision on abortion rights.
Bernie Linnane, president of the campaign group Our Maternity Hospital, said she believed the High Court leak would strengthen public protests against the plan in Ireland. Her group wants the state to take full ownership of the new hospital to protect public investment in it and ensure it provides abortion, contraception and voluntary sterilization services.
“Reproductive rights and reproductive justice are under threat on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Ms. Linnane. “Reproductive rights is a global movement and we will support each other.”
More than 50 doctors working at the current hospital, the National Maternity Hospital, have signed an open letter backing the government’s plan, which would transfer the hospital to the charity. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said fears of religious interference are unfounded, noting that the new hospital’s constitution states that it will offer a full range of “clinically appropriate and legally permitted health care services”.
The controversy dates back to 2017, when the Irish government revealed plans to move the National Maternity Hospital, a private, not-for-profit institution funded mainly by the state, to a new building on the Dublin campus of St. Vincent’s University Hospital, also financed mainly by the state. but it is still owned, like many Irish hospitals and schools, by a Catholic order, in this case, the Religious Sisters of Charity. The two hospitals would operate together under the St. Vincent name.
Ireland has been dominated for much of its history by the doctrines of the Catholic Church, only legalizing abortion in 2018, after two-thirds of voters in an increasingly secular society supported repealing a constitutional ban. Long-standing bans on divorce and contraception, based on Catholic doctrine, were also removed by referendum or changes in the law.
Initially, the government agreed that the merged hospital would be owned and managed by the nuns, in return for providing the land for the new building free of charge. The sisters later said they would withdraw from the plan after more than 100,000 people signed a protest petition, citing fears that Catholic teaching could limit services at the new hospital and calling for it to be publicly owned.
Last week it was announced that the sisters, whose numbers have dwindled, had deeded ownership of St. Vincent’s hospital and the site itself to a new non-profit company, St. Vincent’s Holdings, paving the way for the government to approve the agreement to build a new hospital on the St. Vincent campus. In exchange for agreeing to lease the site free of charge for 299 years, St. Vincent’s Holdings will gain control and management rights to the merged hospitals, as well as a private hospital on the same site.
After its independence from Britain a century ago, the modern Irish state initially entrusted most of its education and health services to religious groups, and in particular to the Catholic Church, to which the vast majority of its citizens belonged. Although the state paid most medical and teaching salaries, and financed most treatment, equipment, and maintenance and construction work, the Catholic orders owned property and controlled teaching and medical care.
In recent decades, as Ireland became more liberal and secular and religious vocations declined, nuns and priests all but disappeared from schools and hospitals, with many orders transferring their property to charities run by boards of selected laymen. by religious orders.
Women’s rights activists are concerned that the Religious Sisters of Charity or the Vatican may have played a role in selecting the directors of the new holding company. They also want the government to reveal the legal safeguards it says it has put in place to prevent religious interference in the new hospital and to protect the public’s huge investment in a private company. The health minister said this week that he would release the legal details of the deal.
The Religious Sisters of Charity and St. Vincent’s University Hospital did not respond to requests for comment.
Opposition parties have called on the government to use its powers to force St. Vincent’s Holdings to sell the site for the new hospital, keeping it in public ownership. Roisin Shortall, leader of the Social Democratic party and a member of parliament’s health committee, said no decision should be taken before parliament had had a chance to examine the deal.
“We have seen, with the reported imminent annulment of Roe v. Wade in the United States, that rights, once secured, must continue to be fought for and defended,” Ms. Shortall said in a statement. “We don’t want to see a similar decline in the reproductive rights of Irish women sneaking in as a result of this government decision.”
Dr Peter Boylan, a former master, or senior doctor, at the National Maternity Hospital, said it was unclear who had appointed the board and shareholders of the new holding company, in which the Irish state has no representation. He pointed to a clause in the financial documents of St. Vincent’s Holdings that states its directors “would pledge to uphold the vision and values of Mary Aikenhead,” who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1815.
Dr Boylan said he believed the pause in decision was a “golden opportunity” for the Irish government to take full ownership of the proposed site and maintain the independence of the existing maternity hospital: “The current state of the National Maternity The hospital has worked very well for over a hundred years, so why not keep it?
The chief physician of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr. Shane Higgins, said in an interview that the corporate structure of the new merged hospital would protect the clinical independence of the maternity hospital. He said there was an urgent need to relocate it from its current site in the city center, which is now over a century old and too small for its purpose.
“I think there are people, commentators, who don’t have a full understanding of what is being proposed and the importance of this agreement for future generations,” said Dr. Higgins. “If this project is not carried out, it will be another 20 years before a new national maternity hospital is built, and the state is asking for it. I think it’s time to move on and build this hospital.”