Nuns urged by minister to agree deals allowing lawful abortion at new hospital
The Health Minister has called on an order of nuns to agree contracts allowing lawful abortion or contraceptive treatment in the new National Maternity Hospital.
Simon Harris issued the demand to the Sisters of Charity, which owns the land in south Dublin where the new 300 million euro facility is planned next to St Vincent's Hospital.
Amid furore over nuns potentially determining clinical care at the hospital and concerns being raised by a respected consultant obstetrician, it is one of three criteria the minister has asked health chiefs to get formal assurances on.
Questions over whether the Sisters of Charity would have ultimate ownership of the public hospital and could profit from it also provoked anger as the congregation has yet to pay three million euro of redress for victims of institutional child abuse.
Mr Harris said: "I have heard people say that nuns will be running the hospital. Not true.
"I have heard that nuns have been gifted the hospital. Not true.
"I have heard people talk about nuns and redress. Redress is extremely important and I have previously said that the religious orders must step up to the mark and pay what is long overdue. However, I think it is wrong to conflate redress with the decision to build the desperately needed new maternity hospital."
Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street and a central figure in negotiations with the nuns on securing the St Vincent's site, gave assurances that medical care at the new hospital will be entirely independent.
The leading medic called for people to "get real" and said contraceptive treatment or abortions when a woman's life is at risk will be carried out at the new hospital.
"At the moment in Holles Street we provide services to women. This includes contraception. We have about five terminations a year, otherwise women would die. This will continue in the new hospital," said Dr Mahony.
The terms of the deal on the new National Maternity Hospital, which was brokered with the Sisters of Charity last November, were supposed to be confidential.
The nuns own the land that it is being built on and it is understood they were not asked to sell the site to the state.
About 50,000 people have signed an online petition opposing any role or ownership for the nuns of the new facility.
Mr Harris spoke out after Dr Peter Boylan, a former Master at Holles Street, questioned whether clinical care, including terminations or IVF treatment, would be influenced by the nuns' religious beliefs.
He also said it is inappropriate for a hospital to have a strong religious influence, particularly from the Catholic Church.
Mr Harris said some questions were legitimate and that he was determined to get guarantees on three issues for the new National Maternity Hospital:
:: It will be developed in line with best international practice and co-located with an adult acute hospital to ensure women and infants have access to a full range of medical specialities.
:: The hospital must have clinical, operational and financial independence, with no question of religious interference. The Minister for Health will have the power to guarantee this to ensure all relevant and legal healthcare must be available.
:: The State's financial and public health interest in this hospital must be fully protected. No private entity or religious order can profit in any way. The building can only be used for the defined purpose of providing public maternity, gynaecological and neonatal services.
Mr Harris said: "I expect all of these issues to be addressed as part of the detailed contractual arrangements which will be put in place in advance of construction investment."
The minister said the Sisters of Charity were giving very valuable land to the state at no cost.
"Let me be very clear: there will be no financial gain to any religious order from the development of this hospital. Legal arrangements will be put in place which will 100% protect the State's investment and interest in the new hospital," said the minister.
He added: "We need to provide a new National Maternity Hospital. The current buildings are no longer fit for purpose.
"We need to ensure patients attending the National Maternity Hospital have immediate access to theatres, high dependency and intensive care provision in an acute adult hospital if the need arises. That is what I intend to do, while absolutely protecting public health policy, taxpayers' money and the state."
There will be nine people on the board of the new National Maternity Hospital - four nominated by the St Vincent's Hospital Group which is owned by the Sisters of Charity, four by the current National Maternity Hospital, including the Master, and it will be chaired by an international expert in obstetrics and gynaecology.
A decision on a planning application on the new hospital is due in August or September. If planning and tendering for the construction goes according to plan then it could be open in four or five years.