"Phantom Catholic Threats" Haunt Ireland's National Maternity HospitalRoundup
tags: abortion, Catholic Church, Irish history, womens history, Magdalene Laundries, medical history
Máiréad Enright is Professor of Feminist Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. She works on legal histories of reproductive injustice in Ireland, focusing on institutional abuse of women and children.
In May 2022, Irish social and mainstream media were alive with heated discussion of the terms of proposed agreements between three corporate entities: the National Maternity Hospital (NMH), St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG), and the Health Service Executive (HSE), the statutory body that runs Ireland’s public health service. The central question, picked over in a dozen ways, was “Can commercial and charities law secure Irish maternity care against the perceived threat of religious influence?” The disputed agreement was about the future of the National Maternity Hospital. The current building at Holles Street was old when James Joyce wrote in Ulysses about a nun admitting Leopold Bloom to the hospital when he arrived in search of the labouring Mina Purefoy. In Holles Street, ‘[a]ll that surgical skill could do was done and the brave woman had manfully helped’. One bright day, the National Maternity Hospital will move out of that building to be co-located with St. Vincent’s University Hospital. It will join that hospital as part of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. It will occupy a building yet to be built, on land owned by St. Vincent’s Holdings, the charity that now owns the Group.
These three enfolded entities are all named for St. Vincent de Paul for a reason. Until April 2022, the Religious Sisters of Charity were owners of St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group and of the campus where the new maternity hospital will be built. It is normal for the Irish state to build valuable assets from which private religious entities benefit. Today however, the public is less satisfied with that status quo. In 2017, a woman-led campaign for a “public and secular” maternity hospital criticized the state’s intention to work with the Religious Sisters of Charity. They emphasized the congregation’s dark history. In living memory, the congregation ran industrial schools and arranged coerced adoptions. They also ran Magdalene laundries, where women who had transgressed Irish sexual and moral norms were incarcerated, and made to do heavy work unpaid. The congregation has still not made full financial reparation to those harmed by their actions.
In response to this campaign, the congregation eventually withdrew from hospital ownership and governance. Yet, although the nuns have now “left the pitch,” the campaign has continually foregrounded the relationship – past and present – between Irish maternity care and religious ethos. In May, supporters of the move to St. Vincent’s lost patience with feminist demands that the new hospital should be state-owned and built on state-owned land. In one striking intervention, the journalist Alison O’Connor warned that campaigners were gripped by a ‘phantom Catholic threat’, itself the product of a ‘post-traumatic Catholic syndrome.’
Certainly, there was a phantomic air to repeated invocations of ‘the nuns’. The Sisters of Charity congregation in Ireland is dwindling and surviving members are elderly. Today, living nuns are rarely visible or potent figures in Irish public life. The deal’s defenders were quick to stand up for ‘the nuns’ but most often did so by reference to women long dead, who worked to provide mass healthcare before the state itself could. More often, nuns appeared as thin caricatures, by turns grotesque or comedic. Protestors dressed as nuns and carried placards reading ‘Sun’s out/Nuns out’ or ‘Huns Before Nuns’. The website of the conservative radio station Newstalk illustrated a story about the dispute with a picture of Sister Michael from the popular comedy ‘Derry Girls’. In a testy email to a woman constituent, one government politician wrote, “I can’t see the trap door that the nuns will jump out of.” A right-wing columnist teased that feminists feared “nuns under the bed.”
Campaigners, however, remain concerned that the Sisters’ legacy will live on in deconsecrated corporate form – perhaps at the level of board culture – threatening the National Maternity Hospital’s clinical independence and risking stagnation of progress towards women’s reproductive freedom. Although Ireland has legalized abortion, services are fragile in places and care is not available to the full extent permitted by law. Irish legislation permits abortion care on limited grounds but does not guarantee access to care.