Why ARC supports the 26th June protest for public and secular ownership of our National Maternity Hospital

On the 26th of June, a large crowd is expected at an outdoor protest against the ongoing collaboration of Church and State in delivering maternity services in Ireland. The current saga began in 2017 when we learned that the Irish government had determined that the most suitable site for Ireland’s new National Maternity Hospital was on the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital in South Dublin. This land is owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, the same organisation which historically managed some of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. There were immediate objections from many pro-choice and feminist groups including ARC, The National Women’s Council and the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare, which organised a large and effective protest in Dublin. Some high-profile obstetricians, including Dr Peter Boylan, also objected to the move, citing concerns that a religious ethos could be imposed which would limit the services that could be offered. In response, the Sisters of Charity agreed to transfer ownership of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group to a new company, St Vincent’s Holdings, and promised no member of their religious congregation would take up a seat on the board This transfer had to be approved by the Vatican, which happened in May 2020.

However, this hasn’t alleviated people’s concerns that St Vincent’s Holdings will impose a Catholic ethos, something that would not only affect the provision of abortion, but other forms of reproductive healthcare. St Vincent’s Holdings will be responsible for the operation of the new hospital through the Saint Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG), which currently operates the hospital at Elm Park; The SVHG is legally bound to operate in accordance with the health care philosophy and ethical code of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Unless and until the Holdings company acquires the shareholding of the SVHG, this situation will continue. As things currently stand, sterilisations and contraception are not offered at St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park, because of its Catholic ethos. At the moment, 9 of the 19 maternity hospitals in Ireland are not providing abortion services; if the new National Maternity Hospital follows this trend, the majority of Irish maternity services will not be offering full abortion care despite being publicly funded.

There is no doubt that the current National Maternity Hospital, which was built in the late 1800s, is not fit for purpose. This isn’t unique for maternity hospitals in Ireland. In fact, in 2018 and 2019, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) carried out inspections and found gross non-compliance with national safety standards in two maternity units, and varying degrees of non-compliance in others. HIQA found over three-quarters of Irish maternity hospitals were inadequately staffed and had outdated physical infrastructure that fell short of international standards. HIQA recommended an urgent acceleration of funding to improve this situation, the impacts of which it described as follows:

When the physical environment is not up to standard, it significantly impacts on a woman’s comfort, dignity and privacy and increases the potential risk of cross infection for women and new-borns. There is also the potential that cramped, overcrowded and cluttered environments will impede the timely attendance to a woman and or new-borns during an emergency. (HIQA, 2020, p. 10)

HIQA (2020) Overview report of HIQA’s monitoring programme against the National Standards for Safer Better Maternity Services, with a focus on obstetric emergencies

However, the answer to these problems does not lie in a return to the past where the Catholic Church exercised enormous control over women’s reproductive healthcare. It lies in a future of full public ownership.

In April 2021, a cross-party Dáil group led by Social Democrats co-leader, Róisín Shortall, was established to advocate for full public ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital and the site on which it will be built. In May 2021, the group Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare, chaired by Jo Tully, began a letter-writing drive and provided a template for members of the public to contact their local TDs objecting to a private company with religious affiliation owning the land upon which our hospital is to be built. They have submitted a petition to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and have asked for a meeting but are still waiting for a response. In the absence of meaningful engagement, the campaign is organising a Rally at the Dáil on Saturday 26th June at 1pm.

ARC fully supports this campaign and also calls for nothing short of full secular care and full public ownership of our National Maternity Hospital. Please get involved if you can, using the hashtag #MakeNMHOurs, so we can keep the pressure up. We repealed the 8th; we have strength in numbers to push for this change also.