When she sat in front of an Oireachtas committee in 2013 to talk about Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, the then master of the National Maternity Hospital Rhona Mahony was, as she describes it, “a lone voice”.
Nine years ago, she appeared before a room full of politicians in Leinster House discussing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. She wasn’t to know she would subsequently become a household name, only that she clearly felt compelled to speak out on behalf of doctors and women.
At that time, you hardly dared mention the word ‘abortion’ in polite company; certainly not in a manner suggesting you favoured it; or, as a doctor, that you would be willing to perform the procedure.
In fact, as a doctor, you would worry about your professional future if in any way you were associated with an abortion-related controversy.
Then, from a political perspective, the majority of those in Leinster House — irrespective of their personal beliefs — were afraid of their own shadows on this issue, for fear it might affect re-election.
Last week, I heard Dr Mahony in an interview with Pat Kenny on Newstalk speak of how she is one of those now performing abortions in Holles St.
So much has changed since our abortion referendum in 2018, where an overwhelming majority of Irish people voted in favour of changing a repressive law. Still, that felt like a brave public admission.
But we already know she is a brave woman. We knew from that first 2013 committee outing. Subsequently, she was a prominent medical voice during the abortion campaign and helped hugely to bring it over the line.
Dr Mahony, who has spearheaded the proposed relocation of the National Maternity Hospital to the St Vincent’s campus, found herself in a very different position at the Oireachtas Committee on Health on Wednesday.
No longer a lone voice, this time she has the open backing of her colleagues in the National Maternity Hospital who have come out overwhelmingly in support of the move to Elm Park, and to leave the current antiquated building for a brand new facility which will not only be more pleasant to work in, but far safer for patients.
The move is backed by Dr Mahony’s successor as Holles St master, as well as her two predecessors in that post. The director of midwifery, Mary Brosnan, has pushed for it strongly and publicly, part of the team advocating in favour who appeared alongside Dr Mahony at this week’s Oireachtas health committee, as did obstetrician Mary Higgins, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, and others, including legal experts.
There is a letter signed by 52 Holles St doctors in support of the move, apparently put together quickly, yet no doctor refused to sign it on the day. There are just over 60 doctors in the hospital. Some would have been on leave and unavailable to sign, but essentially an overwhelming majority back the move.
Prof Brosnan has made clear that the midwifery staff are also overwhelmingly in favour.
So much of this debate has taken place online and it has been very interesting to see Holles St medics making their feelings abundantly and publicly clear; their unanimity on Twitter is remarkable.
Siobhan Corcoran, obstetrician and gynaecologist, said she was “quite simply flabbergasted” that this “phenomenal women’s health initiative” is threatened by misinformation and conflation with other issues.
Donal Brennan, who works in Holles St and St Vincent’s and specialises in gynaecological oncology, explained there had been numerous clinical scenarios where the distance between the hospitals results in “high-risk situations”.
“Major tragedy was only averted due to the skill and dedication of the Holles St staff,” said Prof Brennan. “Do we need to wait for another bad outcome to realise [first] world maternity care must be provided on a co-located site?”
Obstetrician and former Holles St master Declan Keane believes the tide is turning.
“The circulating misinformation on the move to NMH is appropriately refuted and answered,” he said. “We will retain our clinical independence and autonomy, our mastership system, and our ring-fenced funding. No more procrastination please!”
Roger McMorrow, clinical director and consultant anaesthetist at Holles St and St Vincent’s, said his overriding concern is keeping the clinical, operational, and budgetary independence they already have, at the St Vincent’s campus.
“The legal framework guarantees us that,” said Dr McMorrow. “Ownership of the land/buildings is ultimately rendered irrelevant.”
Alison Hickey, who describes herself as a “proud midwife” at Holles St, said: “Working frontline please take my word that the relocation of NMH is only in the best interest of women and babies.
A clinical midwife specialist in bereavement, Sarah Cullen, posted there would be improved facilities for bereaved parents: “There will be an area with family rooms and a much larger space for families to gather and spend time with their baby. This area will have a private entrance, dedicated car parking and a private garden.”
If you want to see even more of what the doctors, midwives, and nurses have been tweeting, take a look at the account of Dr Higgins, who has tirelessly advocated for the move, having previously played a major role in the Repeal campaign for a Yes vote. She has retweeted and responded to many of her colleagues. Indeed, there is an interesting exchange between herself and Dr Corcoran.
The latter said it seemed to her there was “major political hay” to be made on the coat-tails of Repeal.
“They are hijacking the issue misrepresenting it completely,” she said.
Higgins replied: “Agree entirely. It is incredibly disappointing to see dedicated enthusiastic supporters being fed lies and mistruths so that they genuinely believe that if you supported #repealthe8th that you should be against the move of #NMH to St Vincent’s campus.”
At the Oireachtas health committee meeting on Wednesday, umpteen questions were asked and answered, and no “smoking gun” emerged, despite the best efforts of many of those politicians present.
Dr Mahony must have wondered what would it actually take to convince people. This time, she had so many people around her, so much expertise, all on the same page, including the backing of the Taoiseach, the health minister, and all of her colleagues coming out publicly to support the move.
It seems clear that no matter what is said, what is explained, or what is promised, the expert voices are simply not enough for some who prefer to listen to themselves and a different lone medical voice, on the other side: Former master Dr Peter Boylan.
It really is a pity.