DUBLIN — The Irish government has postponed a decision on a plan to give ownership of a proposed $840 million state-funded maternity hospital to a charity set up by an order of Catholic nuns. Abortion rights activists and opposition politicians are fighting the plan, saying they fear the charity might apply Catholic doctrine on abortion and other matters in the running of the hospital.
Ireland’s cabinet was set to approve the plan on Tuesday, but delayed a decision for at least two weeks amid mounting public controversy, fueled in part by reaction to the leak in the United States of a draft opinion that suggested that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion-rights decision.
Bernie Linnane, the chairwoman of the activist group Our Maternity Hospital, said she believed that the Supreme Court leak would bolster public protests against the plan in Ireland. Her group wants the state to take full ownership of the new hospital to protect the public investment in it and to ensure that it provides abortion, contraception and voluntary sterilization services.
“Reproductive rights and reproductive justice are threatened on both sides of the Atlantic,” Ms. Linnane said. “Reproductive rights is a global movement, and we will support each other.”
More than 50 clinicians working at the current hospital, National Maternity Hospital, signed an open letter backing the government plan, which would transfer the hospital to the charity. The health minister, Stephen Donnelly, has said that fears of religious interference are groundless, noting that the new hospital’s constitution states that it will offer a full range of “clinically appropriate and legally permissible health care services.”
The controversy dates back to 2017, when the Irish government revealed plans to move the National Maternity Hospital, a private nonprofit institution funded mainly by the state, to a new building on the Dublin campus of St. Vincent’s University Hospital, also mainly state-funded but still owned, like many Irish hospitals and schools, by a Catholic order — in this case, the Religious Sisters of Charity. The two hospitals would operate together under the St. Vincent’s name.
Ireland has been dominated for much of its history by the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and it only legalized abortion in 2018, after two-thirds of voters in an increasingly secular society supported the repeal of a constitutional ban. Longstanding bans on divorce and contraception, based on Catholic doctrine, were also ended by referendum, or by changes to the law.
Initially, the government agreed that the merged hospital would be owned by the nuns and managed by their representatives, in return for providing the land for the new building at no charge. The sisters later said they would withdraw from the plan after more than 100,000 people signed a protest petition, citing fears that Catholic doctrine might limit the new hospital’s services, and calling for it to be publicly owned.
It was announced last week that the sisters, whose numbers have dwindled, had passed ownership of St. Vincent’s hospital and the site itself to a new nonprofit company, St. Vincent’s Holdings, clearing the way for the government to approve the deal to build a new hospital on the St. Vincent’s campus. In return for agreeing to lease the site for free for 299 years, St. Vincent’s Holdings is set to gain control and management rights of both the merged hospitals, as well as a private hospital on the same site.
After its independence from Britain a century ago, the modern Irish state initially entrusted most of its education and health services to religious groups — and in particular to the Catholic Church, to which a large majority of its citizens belonged. Although the state paid most teaching and medical salaries, and funded most treatments, equipment and maintenance and building work, Catholic orders owned the properties and controlled teaching and medical care.
In recent decades, as Ireland grew more liberal and secular and religious vocations declined, nuns and priests have all but vanished from schools and hospitals, and many orders have transferred their properties to charities run by boards of lay people, selected by the religious orders.
Women’s rights activists are concerned that the Religious Sisters of Charity or the Vatican may have played a role in selecting the directors of the new holding company. They also want the government to disclose the legal safeguards that it says it put in place to prevent religious interference at the new hospital, and to protect the public’s big investment in a private company. The health minister said this week that he would release the deal’s legal details.
The Religious Sisters of Charity and St. Vincent’s University Hospital did not respond to requests for comment.
Opposition parties have called for the government to use its powers to force St. Vincent’s Holdings to sell the site for the new hospital, keeping it in public ownership. Roisin Shortall, a leader of the Social Democrat party and a member of the parliamentary health committee, said no decision should be made before Parliament has had a chance to examine the deal.
“We have seen, with the reported imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, that rights, once secured, must continue to be fought and advocated for,” Ms. Shortall said in a statement. “We do not want to see a similar diminution in the reproductive rights of Irish women coming in by stealth as a consequence of this decision by government.”
Dr. Peter Boylan, a former master, or top doctor, of the National Maternity Hospital, said it remained unclear who had appointed the board and shareholders of the new holding company, on which the Irish state has no representation. He noted a clause in the financial documents of St. Vincent’s Holdings stating that its directors would “be committed to upholding the vision and values of Mary Aikenhead,” who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1815.
Dr. Boylan said he believed that the pause in the decision was a “golden opportunity” for the Irish government to take full ownership of the proposed site, and to maintain the independence of the existing maternity hospital: “The current status of the National Maternity Hospital has worked very well for over a hundred years, so why not retain that?”
The National Maternity Hospital’s top doctor, Dr. Shane Higgins, said in an interview that the corporate structure of the new merged hospital would protect the maternity hospital’s clinical independence. He said there was an urgent need to relocate it from its current site in the city center, now over a century old and too small for its purpose.
“I think there are people, commentators, who don’t have a full understanding of what is proposed, and of the importance for future generations of this deal,” Dr. Higgins said. “If this project doesn’t go through, it will be another 20 years before a new national maternity hospital is built, and the state is calling out for this. I think it’s time to move on and build this hospital.”