ALISON O'CONNOR: Time to deliver on long overdue new national maternity hospital

Just build the damn thing. That’s my eventual conclusion on the new national maternity hospital. This major and crucially needed opportunity will be scuppered if we do not unite behind this project and get if off the plans and under construction.

Women’s healthcare has dominated the headlines this year — for good and bad reasons — but what a way to end it if the contracts were signed by the Department of Health, and the first steps taken towards the construction of this hospital which would then be scheduled to open its doors in 2023.

Just imagine it:

A €300m hospital with over 200 enuretic private rooms — your own room, whether a public or a private patient. What a contrast to the giving birth facilities that currently exist in Dublin

On a previous occasion, I worked out that the buildings which are home to the three main maternity hospitals in the capital — which deliver somewhere around 30,000 babies annually — have a combined age of 433 years.

Taking out the youngest of the three — the Coombe Hospital — where a new building was opened in 1967, the combined age of the other two is 383 years, which puts the Rotunda Hospital building at 260 years and the National Maternity Hospital Holles St at 123 years, with some parts of that dating back to the 1700s. Just to give some further context, that predates Charles Dickens. There are only so many patch-up jobs that can be done on these buildings.

A clichéd question, perhaps, but if men were equipped to give birth, and anyone that has done so will tell you this is no easy job, would they be doing so in ancient workhouse-like structures? Women need to recognise that this is the best deal available and could disastrously derail matters for years if it does not now go ahead as planned.

Have I come to this conclusion easily? No. Are there a myriad of reasons based on bitter experience for Irish women to be wary of the involvement of nuns, and the wider Catholic Church, in anything at all to do with reproduction?

Absolutely. Is it understandable to reflexively wonder if it was some sort of sick joke that in this brave new post-repeal of the Eighth Amendment world to have a Catholic involvement in this project?

Totally.

Not alone do we have enough reproductive-related horrible histories going on, but the recent abortion debate, and all the discussion which that involved, means we keep getting reminded of them — whether it’s the Magdalene laundries or the babies buried in Tuam.

We will never have the utter and absolute certainty that we might wish for — in light of the legacies of our past — relating to the control of the hospital. The crux of the problem lies with the posing of the question: Is the Pope a Catholic? In other words, it is a struggle to understand how an order of nuns would willingly hand over their land to be used to build a hospital where abortions would take place, and even if they are OK with it, what about their superiors — not even the Pope, but the crowd in the Vatican who, as recent experience has shown, continue to try and maintain a vice like grip on the running of the Church globally. There is the wider issue of what changes a new Pope might bring in terms of issuing edicts and toughening up the stance on abortion.

Last Saturday, the outgoing Master of Holles St, Rhona Mahony, gave a very impressive interview on the Marian Finucane Show on Radio One. It was obvious that she is trying to give one last push to ensure this project gets over the line and does not have any hesitation surrounding the future in terms of the new hospital being able to deliver all the services required to women. She worked hard to keep the exasperation out of her voice at the ongoing doubts.

“We have stated the factual position,” said Dr Mahony. “St Vincents have stated the factual position. The minister has stated the factual position. It is time people accepted the factual position. Telling women stories that this hospital will be run by religious sisters is really damaging. It frightens women, because they believed services for them will be restricted in terms of providing termination of pregnancy, providing contraception. The opposite will be the case in terms of expansion of services… it will be revolutionary.”

This week in the Dáil, addressing the issue, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted: “The laws that will apply are the laws enacted in this Oireachtas, not canon law or any other law.

“The ethics that will apply are the medial ethics as laid out by the Medical Council, not anyone else’s ethical framework.”

And he said the laws around conscientious objection that would apply would be “the exact same in every hospital”. It was the Government’s intention to own the hospital and that any procedure that was legal in the State, including tubal ligation, abortion, and IVF, will be available there.

So there is an element of having to, big gulp, take things on trust, but I’m going with Rhona. Trust isn’t the only thing necessary, but also pragmatism, given the aforementioned shambolic state of the existing buildings that house the Dublin maternity hospitals. It is nothing short of miraculous, and a testament to the staff that work in them, given their age and unsuitability, that more tragedies have not occurred.

We hear nothing but warnings at the moment of the risks of Brexit and a possible financial downturn. A brand new expensive hospital to give birth in, no matter how desperately needed, would be fairly high on the list of projects to be slashed in the event of a financial squeeze.

This is also about taking on board the ground-breaking societal changes that have occurred in Ireland in recent years, not least the overwhelming result of the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment in May. It will be the law of the land that abortion will be provided in this hospital.

Ideally it would be on a campus with a children’s hospital, but in the absence of that there is huge medical sense in terms of women’s health, having it alongside St Vincent’s Hospital.

It will also have its own dedicated budget, which is crucial. We saw what occurred at Cork University Maternity Hospital, which shares a campus with Cork University Hospital, and did not have a ringfenced budget. Extraordinary waiting times for gynaecological appointment for women were allowed to build up.

Anyway let’s get the constructing part of this project underway so that this hospital is built. The time for talking about it has passed.

The buildings, which are home to the three main maternity hospitals in the capital, have a combined age of 433 years


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