Approval of Maternity Hospital That Will Provide Abortions Highlights Catholic Exit From Health Care in Ireland

NEWS ANALYSIS: In the face of pressure from the abortion lobby, the Religious Sisters of Charity donated the land where the hospital will be constructed to a nonreligious trust, and ‘will not play any role’ in its operation.

St. Vincent's Hospital in South Dublin, Ireland, was first opened by Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity, in 1834.
St. Vincent's Hospital in South Dublin, Ireland, was first opened by Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity, in 1834. (photo: Niall Carson / PA Wire/Associated Press)

DUBLIN — Sidelining a Catholic religious order, the Irish government has finally given approval for the construction of a new national maternity hospital which officials say will be the main center for abortion in the country.  

A brief statement from the Department of Health May 17 noted tersely that the Religious Sisters of Charity — who until recently owned the site where the hospital will be built — “will not play any role in the governance or operation” of the new facility. 

It marks the end of an era and a further retreat of religious orders from health care in Ireland. 

Plans for a new maternity hospital to serve the whole country have been discussed for more than 20 years. Currently, public maternity hospitals in Dublin are housed in Victorian-era buildings with clinicians and mothers frequently complaining about the conditions. 

The plan had always been to construct the new hospital on a site adjacent to St. Vincent’s Hospital, in the south of the city. Established by the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1834 to care for needy people during a cholera epidemic, it grew to being one of the most-respected hospitals on the island. The public hospital, owned by the sisters but largely funded by the government, sat side-by-side with a private hospital also owned by the sisters to cater for patients with insurance. Crucially, both hospitals have always been run with a Catholic ethos. 

But then in 2018, voters opted to remove the right to life of unborn children from the Constitution by way of a popular vote — which passed two-to-one — and abortion legislation soon followed. 

Any hospital in receipt of state funding, the government quickly insisted, must carry out abortions. In reality, the sisters’ hospitals did not offer obstetrics and gynecology, so the issue did not arise. 

That was until pro-abortion rights activists who had campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the referendum quickly flagged what for them would be a problem — no Catholic-owned health-care facility in the world carries out abortion, why would this be different in Ireland? 

They had hit on an issue: Even though the Religious Sisters of Charity said they were happy for the construction of the hospital to go ahead on land that they owned, this would clearly contradict Catholic teaching on the right to life of unborn children and the unacceptability of abortion. 


Abortion Activists’ Concerns  

If it’s true that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, then the remarkable part of the story is that the contradiction was noted by pro-abortion activists rather than the sisters and their representatives. 

“The Vatican have never in their history alienated or handed over any of their land to facilitate procedures that would inherently go against the teachings of the Church, such as termination of pregnancy or birth control,” Dr. Peter Boylan, a prominent pro-abortion rights obstetrician, told a conference in 2019. 

“Since the announcement that the new National Maternity Hospital was to be co-located with St .Vincent’s Hospital, there has been much concern regarding the governance of the hospital and whether the involvement of the Religious Sisters of Charity could undermine the clinical independence of the hospital. 

“Despite the many assurances from government and the Church over the last number of years that there will be no religious involvement in the running of the hospital, this does not appear to be borne out by facts and we are now in a situation where we are awaiting approval from the Vatican to handover the land for the hospital to be built on, before the project can begin — which is utterly unacceptable,” he said. 

Another factor is that the sisters also ran much-criticized facilities for unmarried mothers during large parts of the 20th century where some former residents reported abuse. This further galvanized feminist activists against any involvement of the sisters. 

On the other hand, pro-lifers were alarmed at the prospect of land owned by the Church being used to construct what supporters had claimed would become a world leader in abortion services. 


Vatican Approval of the Land Transfer 

A new plan emerged that the sisters would divest control of the land to facilitate the building of the hospital, but this was also seen as problematic by moral theologians since it would mean that the sisters had cleared the space for something which is diametrically contrary to Church teaching. 

Dominican Father Kevin O’Reilly, a lecturer at the Rome-based Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, appealed to the Vatican to intervene.  

“It is bewildering that those who have facilitated the process to date clearly do not possess any degree of moral foresight,” Father O’Reilly told The Irish Catholic newspaper in 2019. 

“One can only hope that the competent officials in the Vatican will act in accord with the Church’s constant teaching and the dictates of right reason by forbidding this unconscionable act,” he said. 

It was to be a vain hope. 

A May 2020 statement from a public relations firm said that the sisters had received Vatican approval for the transfer of ownership of the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group to a new independent charitable body to be called St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG. 

The sisters gifted the lands at the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group, sites worth some €200 million (more than $213 million). In line with canon law, formal approval for the decision to complete the transfer of ownership of such extensive property owned by a religious congregation had to be requested from Rome and appeared to have been granted without much objection despite what the land would now be used for. 

Reaction from some quarters was swift. Divine Word Missionary Father Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, described Rome’s move as “just wrong.” 

“I’m quite shocked. I’m dumfounded really, I just can’t understand it. 

“Everyone knows that it’s just wrong, that abortion is wrong, I’ve no idea what the reason behind it is, why it’s being allowed, why it’s going ahead,” he said. 


‘A Sorry Tale’ 

St. Vincent’s was first opened by Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity, in 1834. The sisters insist they are still true to her Catholic vision in health care. In the congregation’s statement, Superior General Sister Patricia Lenihan insisted: “We are confident that the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group board, management and staff will continue to provide acute health care services that foster Mary Aikenhead’s mission and core values of dignity, compassion, justice, equality and advocacy for all into the future.” 

The government’s May 17 statement May confirmed that “the sisters have completed the transfer of their shares in St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group to the charitable entity, St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG and no longer have any involvement in St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group.” 

David Quinn, director of the pro-religion think-tank the Iona Institute, describes the whole story as a “sorry tale.” 

He told the Register that he has been “alarmed” at the anti-Catholic nature of a lot of the debate. 

“I wish the nuns would’ve handed the hospital over to a lay Catholic trust to ensure that it could continue to have a Catholic ethos, but in the middle of all of this there has been a lot of language incredibly condemnatory of the nuns. 

“There has been a total focus on the negative side of their legacy to the total exclusion of the positive side of their legacy,” Quinn said. 

It marks a somewhat ignominious end to almost 200 years of involvement in healthcare from the Religious Sisters of Charity, offering care and support to vulnerable people long before such needy individuals were on the radar of the British authorities or the post-independence Irish government in the early 20th Century. 

Perhaps more worryingly than legacy is the fact that Ireland’s once vast Catholic health care infrastructure has been steadily given away over the past number of decades. The hospitals might still keep the names of saints — for now — but Catholicism now has no say on what happens under the roof.

Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic. He writes from Dublin.