Why I’m Marching: The battle over abortion is far from won

Midwives for Choice

Philomena Canning is a midwife and chairperson of Midwives for Choice. Midwives for Choice is an organisation which advocates for the rights of all during childbirth and for informed choice throughout their sexual and reproductive lives. Philomena will be marching in tomorrow’s March for Choice, which starts at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin at 2pm.

I am marching to amplify the voice of the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare – a grassroots movement that shares the focus of this year’s March for Choice on access and equity in abortion provision.

The battle over abortion is far from won. In the days leading up to the referendum, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a code of ethical standards forbidding Catholic healthcare facilities from providing abortion. While the government insists that all post-repeal services will be provided by all relevant hospitals, privately owned Catholic hospitals will not flout the Bishops’ code. Up to 20 hospitals in Ireland are religious affiliated, according to media reports.

The government is now planning to fund a new maternity hospital that is set to be under private Catholic ownership and control. Holles Street Hospital has agreed to a takeover bid by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, a private Catholic company which is governed by the values and ethos of the Irish Sisters of Charity. The government has agreed to bankroll this private arrangement with the Group by gifting a new hospital to their Catholic healthcare empire. This is despite the fact that the Sisters of Charity have failed to pay their share of the child abuse bill they agreed with government in 2002, and have refused to pay any compensation to the women who slaved in their Magdalene laundries.

The new build is slated to cost €350m of taxpayers’ money. Despite this massive capital spend, the hospital is set to remain in private ownership, governed by the ethos of the Irish Sisters of Charity.

Abortion and related services will not be provided there if the takeover bid by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group succeeds. The National Maternity Hospital is, and always has been, a private Catholic corporation, despite its name. The government has no power over private hospitals. Under St Vincent’s, Holles Street is set to be more Catholic, not less. Doctors at St Vincent’s are required to sign contracts binding them to the ethos of the Sisters of Charity. Abortion, the morning after pill, sterilisation and vasectomy are all banned. Despite offering to step down, the nuns have always insisted that the values of founder Mary Aikenhead will prevail in their hospitals. Those values do not include abortion.

For the government to provide a publicly funded maternity service through a privately owned and controlled Catholic company is a 1950s model that is not fit for purpose in 2020. The position of the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare is clear: a pro-life ethos that places women’s health and lives at risk has no place in a national maternity hospital. The new maternity hospital must be owned by the people if abortion is to be guaranteed. Public funding of the new build must be made conditional on public ownership of the new hospital. The alternative is clerical control over women’s reproductive healthcare that denies women their human rights, in a misnomered “national” maternity hospital.

I very much look forward to marching at this year’s March for Choice to add my own voice to that of our nation in calling for access and equity in abortion provision. And I will keep marching until women’s rights in reproductive healthcare are fully protected across the country.

(With thanks to Marie O’Connor)