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National Maternity Hospital - Time to get off the sidelines!

17 February 2022

An artistís impression of the new National Maternity Hospital.

On the 25th May 2018 Irish citizens in the 26-county state voted to make abortion a legal right for women. Although admittedly within certain limits this was momentous, considering that abortion had been completely illegal unless there was a serious risk to the life of the mother. However, the case of Savita Halappanavar demonstrated that women had no control even with life threatening conditions when she died after being refused an abortion for a septic miscarriage in 2012.

From the time of the Yes vote and the decision by most of the left to restrict the demands to repeal of the 8th anti-abortion amendment rather than the right to choose, there was a realisation of many women and supporters of the new amendment that the battle to wrest control of the medical ethical agenda guarded by the Catholic Church was still to be fought for.

The Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women's Health was set up in 2018 following the referendum when it was clear that the new National Maternity Hospital would be used as a bulwark to prop up the beleaguered power of the Church in the lives of Irish people.

It is extraordinary that this smoke and mirrors game of church landowners, vested interests and government is still going on ever since. Itís also testament to the campaign and its supporters that the government and St Vincent's Healthcare have been pressured to delay the opening of the new maternity hospital under church control and having to regularly respond to concerns in the media.

However, the government wants to push ahead saying that there can no longer be any good reason to delay the NMH any longer. They cite the fact that they have twice reached an agreement with the Sisters of Charity to lease the land first for 149 years and then for 299 years and that as far as they are concerned there are no limits to any procedures that could be carried out. They also cite the change in composition of the board reducing the representation of St Vincent's Healthcare members and appointing two top people from non-medical backgrounds, an ex-garda commissioner and a well-known business man.

Yet this does nothing to address the original concerns of medical professionals, campaigners and the public, that the land needs to be owned by the state and that church bodies have no involvement in the running of the hospital.

Doctor Peter Boylan is well known as a public figure who has spoken up for the reproductive rights of Irish women for several decades. His recently published book, In the Shadow of the Eighth tells the story of how he learned about injustices in health services through first-hand experience not least because he ran St. Vincent's Maternity Hospital from 1991 to 1997.

His brave and unsparing criticism of government and Church and his participation in this and other campaigns has been invaluable. His status as a practitioner has allowed him to be a very public thorn in the side of the government which has kept an issue the government wished to have gone under the radar in the media.

Boylan in a recent TV interview said that legal abortion is now a reality in Ireland is an historic gain for women here.

It is good that in the light of this success the interference of the church in the maternity hospital is even more starkly exposed.

In an opinion piece she wrote in the Examiner Marie OíConnor stated;

"Nothing less than full public ownership of the new facility makes sense. To continue in the present path is to ignore the 66% of the electorate who voted to repeal the 8th Amendment and to pave the way for the "culture wars" and the courtroom battles they give rise to - now being played out across the United States over abortion".

A report commissioned by the campaign has been published that says that there are no insurmountable barriers to the state making an order to buy the land and set up the hospital without church involvement.

Despite statements there is no barrier to terminations being offered at the new hospital the Vatican have been asked to approve the boards plan. Of course, this is what was always done before in the case of religious based decision making in Ireland but in the case of abortion, which the Vatican is opposed to. Their approval makes no sense if the Church is not seeking to hold onto power.

The Governmentís latest ploy has been to try and convince the public that the new hospital will be subject to an HSE licence that will require it to offer all medical procedures under Irish law. This is very clever but, as Dr Boylan stated on the Pat Kenny Show last week, it does not solve the problem that already exists in about half the maternity hospitals in Ireland where conscientious objection from doctors and the avoidance of setting up facilities for the procedures is taking place. This will lead to a situation where some hospitals will remain no go areas which obviously would be what the church would like to see.

With the government closing in on a final deal it is important that activists turn their attention to enablers who have kept silent. The most obvious of these is the Green party.  As part of the coalition, they are well placed to prevent the NMH handover. They were supported as a progressive force that would moderate the more extreme attacks of the coalition but have a long history if selling out. The other main target is the trade union movement. Their members will have to deal with the ongoing battle in the hospitals. Again, ICTU have a long history of partnership and climbing under bed when opposition to the government is required.

The campaign against the handover of the NMH has done sterling work. It's time to unite behind it to push back the forces of reaction.

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