Thursday, 12 May 2022
National Maternity Hospital: Statements
Emer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
I am so glad and it is so welcome to me that we are having this debate. Taking a pause over the past ten days was the right thing to do because people have questions and it is up to all of us who have questions, including public representatives, men, women and today's children who may someday be using the new national maternity hospital, to get those answers. I thank the Minister for already answering some of my questions today and in the briefing he provided to Fine Gael Deputies, Senators and women's network members during the week. I am glad we had that opportunity to talk this through with the Minister because it is such a complex issue. It is also an extremely important issue when it comes to the future of women's healthcare. We should acknowledge that even by having this discussion we are showing how far society has come because as a nation we are seeking assurances there will be no role whatsoever for the church when it comes to the provision of healthcare in Ireland. Not so long ago we would have accepted religious influence in so many areas of our lives with no questions asked but that time has well and truly passed.
As a young woman in my 30s, I do not want the church next or near my reproductive rights. I stood outside the gates of this House demanding that women who were going through maternity care would have their partners with them. I marched with these women, I campaigned on the repeal of the eighth amendment and I campaigned for the legislation for terminations in Ireland. It is because of the murky past and the blurred lines between State and church that I am glad the nuns are gone from our healthcare system. I am glad the Vatican has no role whatsoever in healthcare or maternity care in Ireland because religious influence in healthcare would be as inappropriate as me asking the parish priest to say something in his sermon at Mass. It is Irish law and not canon law that determines our laws and values as a nation.
It is the detailed legal advice and political assurances that terminations, sterilisations like tubal ligation and gender-affirming surgeries will all be carried out in our maternity hospital that I trust in. We need to have the highest standards in healthcare when it comes to our new maternity hospital. We heard so much discussion of the term "clinically appropriate", which has caused confusion and we need to clear that up. If that means, as my colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, has said, providing a non-exhaustive and non-exclusive list of procedures and treatments that will take place in the hospital, then that is what we have to do. We have to spell it out in black and white so there can be no confusion whatsoever that all legally permissible procedures are to be carried out in the new national maternity hospital. I ask the Minister to provide people with that piece of mind because that is the most important reassurance women need. We need to know the hospital is legally obliged to provide terminations, sterilisations and gender-affirming surgery. I know this is the case. I would not vote for a hospital if I did not believe that, but people watching at home have not had the opportunity to pore over all the legal documents and they need that assurance. The Minister needs to listen to that request and respond to it.
From the briefing this week, I understand the Religious Sisters of Charity was sent a one-page document approving its request to divest its interests in healthcare to a secular organisation that we know as St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG. Just knowing that cleared up so many questions I had, but the public still have those questions. Will the Minister seek a copy of that formal approval from the Vatican to transfer the Religious Sisters of Charity's shareholding in the group to the new charitable company, thus fully divesting it of any influence over healthcare? If we had that document and if it could be published, that would alleviate people’s concerns. It would prove the nuns are gone and that they are out of the picture. There is a narrative out there that they are still involved which we need to clear up, and furnishing a copy of that document would help.
It is so important we completely alleviate the concerns of the public on this matter because we desperately need the new national maternity hospital. I want a hospital that is state of the art. I want a hospital that is co-located so that it is integrated into the existing hospital. The new hospital will have corridors and not ambulance rides to bridge the physical distance between maternity care and intensive care to provide the best possible care for women and their children. I cringed when I heard Professor Shane Higgins, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, tell us that, right now, surgeons are packing up surgical tools, putting them in the boots of their cars or in taxis and battling traffic across the city to deliver critical care to women who need it. In 2022, that is unbelievable. It is also unbelievable to think our current national maternity hospital, which we are so happy with in so many ways, has two religious appointees on its board and is chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin. What some might find totally unbelievable is that it still carries out terminations. Thankfully, our new national maternity hospital will not have any religious ethos, religious representation on the board or religious interference, and it too will carry out terminations. We need this investment in women’s healthcare, we need this state-of-the-art hospital and we need it now rather than later, or as soon as is possible. We hear from our clinicians and from the people who deliver this care day in, day out. In them we need to trust.