For too long, mothers have given birth in buildings unfit for purpose

The problem is we all know the Church plays a very long game, and sticks, religiously, to its beliefs, writes Alison O’Connor

For too long, mothers have given birth in buildings unfit for purpose

If God is involved in our maternity services in Ireland, the real miracle is so many babies are born safely given the conditions women are giving birth in. The buildings that are home to the three main Dublin maternity hospitals — which deliver around 30,000 babies annually — have a combined age of 433 years.

If you take out the youngest of the three — the Coombe Hospital — where a new building was opened in 1967, the combined age of the others is 383 years, which puts the Rotunda Hospital building at 260 years old and the National Maternity Hospital Holles St at 123 years.

It’s hard not to wonder what kind of eejits we women are to have put up with as major a deal as giving birth in such antiquated, overcrowded, uncomfortable, dangerous conditions. What about if men were, for instance, anatomically equipped to do the job of delivering a baby and, as result, suffered hours, sometimes days, of excruciating penile and testicular pain, and possible stitches in those regions afterwards? What are the chances, do you reckon, that ancient workhouse-like structures would be the buildings in which they continued to labour?

It is an extraordinary thing that we have the maternal mortality record that we do given the physical conditions that obstetricians and midwifes work under, not to mention the women giving birth.

Finally, after years of promises and no action for this Cinderella sector of the health system, a new site was found for the National Maternity Hospital. But, as ever with any major project we attempt, there is controversy and complication. As a result, the women of Ireland face the appalling choice between a possible delay of years or the possible interference in their care by the Catholic Church. Both prospects present an appalling vista.

This is such a peculiarly Irish situation — we desperately need a new maternity hospital, our national health authority puts pressure on a healthcare group, which an order of nuns has control of, with available land to accommodate the hospital. In turn, the order of nuns will get ownership of the hospital — €300m worth of an asset – but apparently will not exert any control over what is carried out there, even if it directly and fundamentally contravenes Catholic teaching.

There are a number of bits to this puzzle that simply do not fit, but chief amongst those is the idea that the Sisters of Charity would agree, for instance, to abortion being carried out in a building owned by them, even if we’re told they will not control it and cannot sell it. Why would they? And why would Bishop Kevin Doran say anything other than what he said to the Sunday Times?

“Any healthcare organisation bearing the name Catholic, while offering care to all who need it, has a special responsibility … to Catholic teachings about the value of human life and the dignity and the ultimate destiny of the human person,” said he .

This is a man who holds a senior position within the Catholic Church. His Bishop colleagues may not be coming out and stating it, but we already know they believe similarly — after all, not to do so contravenes Church teachings.

Oddly, on Tuesday, speaking to his local radio station, Shannonside FM, Bishop Doran said he did not specifically mention the new maternity hospital in his comments; that the comments attributed to him were in response to a question about canonical obligations regarding the disposal of existing Church property, and were meant to be general in nature.

Bishop Kevin Doran
Bishop Kevin Doran

So a high-profile national journalist asks for a comment during a controversy engulfing the country, which directly affects the Catholic Church, and the response was “intended to be general in nature”. Ah here. At any rate, the man was being entirely true to his beliefs — again, why wouldn’t he be? The mystery is why the nuns would not apparently be doing the same?

On the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group website, under ‘Mission Statement’, the first bullet point under ‘Our Core Values’ states: “Human Dignity: Respecting the sacredness of human life.”

In the mutually parasitic relationship that exists between the State and the Catholic orders that run many of our healthcare institutions on behalf of the State, one imagines it is a pragmatic approach for the religious orders to keep a tight rein on procedures that are against the Catholic ethos but not to shout from the rooftops if and when they occur.

We have been told St Vincent’s has carried out a number of abortions to save the lives of pregnant women since the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.

We’ve also heard vasectomies are not allowed in St Vincent’s Hospital. St Vincent’s has denied this. Declan Keane, the former master of Holles St and now the hospital’s clinical director, said this week that he had performed two sterilisations in St Vincent’s. On each occasion, “as a courtesy”, he had informed the medical director there. However, if he had been in the NMH in Holles St, he made clear, there would be no need for such a courtesy, as such matters are seen as being between a patient and their doctor.

Why then did Dr Keane feel the need to mention to the medical director that he was going to carry out this rather basic procedure?

How about the reports from respected medical journalists that doctors who work in St Vincent’s have said, off the record, that they are restricted from carrying out such procedures? All of this is typical of the manner in which things have traditionally operated in that veiled area between Church and State. But, as the overwhelming votes from the Citizens Assembly showed last weekend, the times are much changed.

There is comfort to be taken in the details of the deal released this week concerning the autonomy of the hospital. Upon hearing them first, you were inclined to think: “I do like what you’re saying.”

But, on reflection, if you’ve a uterus, you realise that you simply don’t trust it. It is only months ago that the SVHG was fighting tooth and nail for all services at the new maternity hospital to be under the control of the St Vincent’s board and the shareholders. In that set-up, there would have been no master and a clinical director would have reported to a CEO appointed by St Vincent’s.

We are now led to understand that the Department of Health is considering a review of the ownership and patronage of the many hospitals across the country; this will apparently be similar to the schools patronage and divestment reforms. We know how successful and speedy that has been.

The problem is we all know the Church plays a very long game, and sticks, religiously, to its beliefs. The State, as we can see, couldn’t get it together to build a new hospital until the existing one was more than 120 years old. What a situation Irish women now find themselves in — hold their noses and hope for best with the current arrangement, or protest to such an extent that the project is derailed and they continue to give birth in ancient buildings utterly unfit for purpose.

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