- 06 Sep 21
You may have thought we were safe from religious fundamentalism – but so did the women of Texas. What events over the past month have confirmed is that religious zealots will do anything they can to reclaim power. In which light, the battle for full, secular, State control of the National Maternity Hospital becomes all the more vital...
My mind keeps circling back to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, in one guise or another, is insisting on having a say in the running of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital. It is a thought that disturbs me greatly.
In theory, the idea of moving the hospital from its current Holles Street building to the campus on which St. Vincent’s Hospital is located might have seemed like a good one. However, what has become painfully clear with the passage of time is that the National Maternity Hospital team were too eager; and as a result, they made an unholy mess of the negotiations.
From the point of view of the State, who will have to fund the building to the tune of a minimum of €800 million, it should have been very simple: if we can do this without the involvement of any religious vested interests whatsoever in the running of the hospital, then it is an option worth pursuing. Otherwise, it is a non-starter.
That is not the approach that was taken. Looking at it from the perspective of 2021, you have to ask: how could the then-board of the National Maternity Hospital have been so hopelessly naive? How come the Department of Health was not more alert to the inevitable conflicts of interest? Why did no one in the HSE raise the alarm?
The answer, of course, is that the dominant influence on Irish political life, and on the public service and the judiciary, exerted quietly and insidiously behind closed doors by the Roman Catholic Church, ran – and still runs – deep. The revulsion from the grotesque abuses of power perpetrated by the Church, and its leaders in the hierarchy and the religious orders, had gripped younger public servants, but it had not fully penetrated the higher echelons, where deals of this kind are done.
And so the old order – and with it the idea that the wishes of the Roman Catholic Church had to be accommodated on matters to do with gynaecology – prevailed. The working assumption was that no one would demur. And that, even if they did, sure they’d ultimately give it a nod and a wink just to get the job done. There was no principle that couldn’t be sold down the river, if that was what was required to smooth the way.
And so a process was entered into, which – if they could have slid it through on the QT – was destined to yield a horribly flawed result, with religious vested interests having a direct say, for the long term, in the way the National Maternity Hospital is run.
For me, it is cut and dried: it would be utterly wrong to allow the Vatican; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; the Sisters of Charity – who own the land on which it is proposed to build the National Maternity Hospital; or their proxies in the St. Vincent’s Hospital Medical Group, to have any hand, act or part in the running of the National Maternity Hospital. And yet that is what had been discussed and was recommended to the Minister.
Sometimes I wonder is it just that people are irredeemably stupid. It is the only possible explanation for the way in which this fatal compromise was being presented effectively as a fait accompli.
However, they had reckoned without Peter Boylan.
The former Master of the National Maternity Hospital refused to lie down and accept this outcome as the way things are done in Ireland. He led what has become a growing movement, opposing Church involvement in either the ownership or the running of the hospital. He has since been joined in this campaign by a variety of women’s groups, including many of those who campaigned very effectively to Repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. The campaign has gathered momentum. But the battle is far from won.
I wrote about this controversy in the August issue of Hot Press.
In that article, I focussed on the terrible reality that, when it comes to issues of this kind, you cannot believe a word from the mouths of those who represent the Catholic Church, or the religious orders, in Ireland. They claim that all forms of gynaecological treatment that are legal in this State will be available in the new National Maternity Hospital, even if the nuns, or their proxies, own the land and are represented on the board. But that is not what they intend.
I can guarantee that they will not act in the best interests of Irish women in relation to abortion by ensuring that procedures are carried out without any form of equivocation in the way they would be in a secular hospital. Instead, any representatives of the Sisters of Charity, or of the proxies who have been gifted title to the land on which the hospital would be built, will do everything in their power to render the laws of the land subservient to the religious ethos that already prevails in St. Vincent’s Hospital.
INSANE TO SLEEPWALK
I am saying it again here, so that there can be no misunderstanding in the Department of Health, in the HSE, on the part of the Minister Stephen Donnelly, or among the board members of the National Maternity Hospital.
Reassurances, legal or otherwise, provided by religious vested interests of any kind, that are seeking a say in the running of the new National Maternity Hospital, will not be worth the paper they are written on. Committed Roman Catholics, and especially members of the clergy and the hierarchy, believe that they answer to a higher authority. They treat the State, its representatives and its laws with contempt.
The Pope, the bishops and the clergy, and by extension the Sisters of Charity, believe that they are Christ’s representatives on earth. They know best. And they are convinced that it is okay for them to hide the truth, or to lie about their intentions, if they are serving what they understand to be that higher purpose.
They will lie. They will cheat. They will dissemble. They will use any means available to get their hands on the levers of power so that they can stifle, in any and every way imaginable, a woman’s right to choose, even within the confines of the current law in the Republic of Ireland.
They are vehemently opposed to the decision taken by the Irish people: (a) to Repeal the 8th Amendment, and (b) to liberalise the laws on abortion. They see anything they can do to frustrate the outcome of that decision as being legitimate in the eyes of the Lord.
I know I am repeating myself. But I think it is important to do exactly that. Because it is of absolutely critical importance that we do not allow people who have no interest whatsoever in doing anything other than pursuing their own ideological and religious agenda to gain a foothold in the National Maternity Hospital. They cannot be trusted. They will scheme and plot. They will plot and scheme. They will use stealth. They will encourage opposition from within.
One of the most striking aspects of the debate so far has been the glib presumptuousness of those who see appeasing the Catholic Church as a good thing. These in-betweenies fail to recognise the deviousness with which they – and we – are confronted. They refuse to acknowledge that there is a fundamental issue of equality at stake. They are happy to jolly along with the idea of having a couple of religious representatives on the board. It is madness.
No matter what your political or religious convictions, you should be treated with the same level of respect, care and decency within the Irish maternity hospital system. For example:
• You are a Roman Catholic and you are adamantly opposed to abortion: fine, nothing will be imposed on you or your family that you believe is wrong or sinful.
• You are an atheist, and you believe that your mental health will be put at serious risk unless you can bring your crisis pregnancy to an end: fine, the procedures are available, subject to the usual requirements in relation to medical opinion, timing and so on.
Allowing religious representatives onto the board will inevitably skew that delicate balance. The objective of the religious interests will be to favour one of these positions over the other. It will be to encourage more of the first and less of the second. It will be to frustrate women who have decided that a termination is the option they must choose. I am saying this to Stephen Donnelly now: it would be insane to sleepwalk into a deal where they can pursue this agenda, whether by covert means or otherwise.
PLUNGED BACK TO THE ‘60s
One of the lazy, underlying assumptions in all of this is that the debate about abortion is over – and that religious vested interests in Ireland know it. There is no point, this smug argument runs, in them fighting a rearguard action, because they know that they couldn’t and won’t prevail. So why would they bother?
That is wrong in every way. The Roman Catholic Church may have been shocked at the overwhelming rejection of their dogma on abortion in the Referendum. Their first instinct may have been to lie low and regroup. But the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to abortion is as intractable as ever. They would like to reinstate the 8th Amendment – or to achieve the equivalent via legislation – at the earliest possible opportunity. And they – and their foot soldiers – are working towards that even as we speak.
The time to start resisting is now. And the best way to begin the campaign of resistance is to ensure that they have no say at all, in the running of the National Maternity Hospital.
There are times when I wonder: does this make me sound like a fucking crank?
But then I see the headlines rolling in from Texas and it becomes perfectly clear: the assumption that society is propelled ever-forward in a progressive arc towards greater freedoms is demonstrably wrong.
That’s not what has been happening in Poland, Hungary or Brazil, to name just three largely Catholic countries. Nor is it what has been happening in the United States.
They have just passed a law in Texas that will introduce an effective ban on abortion in a State with a population of almost 30 million people. It is the second biggest State in the US after Alaska. It has the second highest population after California. And yet it is being dragged back into the 1950s by religiously motivated Christian conservatives, who were aided and abetted by the grotesquely sleazy and hypocritical government of Donald Trump.
The Roe .v. Wade judgement in the US Supreme Court in 1973 was an historic one. It underpins all of the progress that was subsequently made in America, and by extension in Europe, including Ireland, in relation to women being able to exercise control of their own fertility. And yet, as I write, it is on the brink of being extinguished for people living in Texas.
The US Supreme Court had been asked to step in, to block the restrictive new anti-abortion law. It has stayed silent. The likelihood now is that other Republican-controlled States will follow Texas’ lead.
The mechanisms used to achieve this effect are predictably twisted. Private citizens are being given the right to sue anyone who provides abortion services, or who helps any individual to have an abortion. Not only this, but the litigant can seek costs from the person being sued – but, even in victory, the opposite does not apply. Stacking the deck in this way is against every legal principle, and will allow vexatious cases to be funded by fundamentalist religious groups and taken against individuals and institutions, with the express intention of rendering it impossible to continue providing abortion services.
It is an outrageous assault on the rights of women. But the Supreme Court has been packed with religious bigots. It is possible that sanity will somehow prevail. More likely, however, women in Texas are going to be plunged back to the 1950s.
THE FUTURE STARTS HERE
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban are back. Twenty years on from the ill-advised and ultimately incompetent US and UK invasion, these genocidal nazis have retaken control. They are religious fundamentalists, with a complete intolerance of anything that questions their brutal brand of extremist Islam. They intend to impose their version of Sharia Law, which involves the total subjugation of women.
It is a rotten, twisted, patriarchal world-view of the sick kind that only the religions of Abraham seem capable of inventing. Women have to be available for sex and reproduction. Contraception is evil. Men must be obeyed.
We all watch in horror and think: how can the women of Afghanistan be abandoned to this fate?
Well, here’s the rub. The way in which religious vested interests operated in Ireland was not that different from the Taliban.
They wanted complete control.
They wanted to run the schools, the hospitals, the orphanages, the births, the weddings, the funerals and everything in between. They wanted women kept at home, and denied the right to work, which happened when women were forced to leave the public service when the got married. They wanted contraception banned. They wanted censorship to prevail. And most of this they achieved.
We lived in a monotheistic State that was subservient to the ideology and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a betrayal of the ideal of a Republic of equal citizens, but the Church didn’t give a damn. This was what they wanted. And they had infiltrated the body politic so effectively that the politicians and the policy-makers all became complicit. They had been allowed to take over by proxy.
And Ireland became a theocracy.
It is only recently that we finally began to throw off the chains of this long period of oppression. It was a beautiful feeling, as the Same Sex Marriage Referendum was passed, and then the referendum to Repeal the 8th, by more or less a 2 to 1 majority. But complacency is the enemy of freedom. The clock has just been turned back in Afghanistan at the expense of women. The same is happening in Texas. We cannot allow that to happen here.
The first key battleground is in relation to the National Maternity Hospital. And so I say again: under no circumstances whatsoever should the Roman Catholic Church – or any other religious vested interest – be allowed to have any involvement in running this vital national institution.
If the Minister for Health fails in his duty in relation to this, he will be remembered forever for all the wrong reasons. The future starts here.