Socialist Democracy (Ireland) provides a further two articles outlining the continued resistance of the Right and Catholic Church to women’s rights in the aftermath of the historic victory over the Eight Amendment.
1. NEW IRISH ABORTION LAW
A 350 million euro hospital for the nuns, 14 years jail time for those who exercise the right to choose
The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill passed through the Irish Dail just before midnight on 5th December. The debate involved an ill-tempered confrontation between left and right, but this debate was on marginal issues rather than on the substance of the bill. A transparent wrecking attempt by the right around data collection and conscientious objection rights for anti-abortion medical personnel failed and the government proposals were passed with minimal changes.
At one level the referendum and the passing of the Bill are historic moments in Irish history. Socialist TDs have been self-congratulatory about what has been achieved and their role in the referendum campaign. However the bill’s passage has been met with a certain level of disquiet. It has become evident to activists that abortion rights remain heavily restricted, that many issues will have to be fought again in the state structures and in the medical services and that the idea that the link between church and state in Ireland had been broken has proved to be mistaken.
A decision was made early on in the Repeal campaign to limit the issue to repeal alone. The intention was to ensure the broadest possible unity, but the outcome was to leave legislation to the right wing government and the Dail – hostile environments for women’s rights.
In the event the legislation is quite restrictive.
The main promise was that there would be essentially abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but to exercise this right the woman must receive certification from a doctor and then must have the procedure carried out within three days.
After 12 weeks conditions are very restrictive: abortion is allowed on the basis of fatal foetal abnormality or where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman. Worryingly this process is only available where the foetus is not deemed viable. We have already had cases where “termination” was interpreted as forcing the woman to give birth. As in the past there will be a panel of doctors, now reduced to two and a cumbersome appeal process.
Just to underline how restrictive the process is meant to be, punitive criminal sanctions of up to 14 years jail are retained in the legislation for anyone procuring an abortion outside the terms of the Act.
At protest meetings outside the Dail during the passage of the legislation congratulatory speeches by the socialist groups centred around the assertion that it was only because of the mobilisation around repeal that this legislation is going through: “We forced them to this point”.
But limits placed on the mobilisation around repeal means that the government is not under any pressure from a mass movement. There was no continuity after the repeal campaign. It was disbanded and the issue went back to the Dail, an arena where historically women’s rights are trampled on rather than vindicated.
The mobilisation and enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of women and youth was a huge gain but it’s in the past. There were no structures left behind where women really could decide their fate. The fourteen year jail threat is a reinstatement of the criminalization of women’s rights, with the usual weapons of intimidation and terror. It cannot be separated from the strategy of re – establishing church state relations on a stable basis. The contrast between the govt action in criminalising women’s self determination over their own bodies and rewarding the Sisters of Charity, serial abusers of women and children, with the 350 million euro prize of the new national maternity hospital says it all about the limited progress made around a Dail centred strategy. It also underlines the nature of the state, which has had the church as an essential pillar of its survival since it’s foundation and is not about to give it up. The new relationship between church and state, which Leo Varadker talked about with the pope, is looking very like the old one.
As Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall pointed out in the Dail, the fact that the government is now talking about having a representative on the board of the National Maternity Hospital is evidence that the deal between church and state concocted by professional negotiator Kieran Mulvey two years ago was worthless and that even the government do not believe the assurances of the Sisters of Charity and of their shell company, St Vincent’s, that they will facilitate abortion.
Despite criticism the government are pressing ahead and are now proposing to link all maternity hospitals with surgical hospitals. This makes clinical sense. But without further discussion it means that the government’s corrupt deal with the churches shell company will become the standard practice in the health service.
It was perfectly correct to agree with others to fight together for repeal of the constitutional amendment banning abortion. What was wrong was subsuming other demands in the cause of unity and not fighting constantly for a deeper unity in defence of women’s right to choose and organising the many radicals and young people independently within the repeal campaign to fight on for full democratic rights.
In the new law, in the handover of the maternity hospital, the same old Janus face of the Irish state, the unity of Church and state, is emerging yet again.
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2. HANDOVER OF NATIONAL MATERNITY HOSPITAL TO CHURCH
Handover of National Maternity hospital to church
NAMA with rosary beads?
Leo Varadker said during the Pope’s visit that there needed to be a new relationship between the state and the Catholic church, yet the attempts by Simon Harris to gift the new maternity hospital to the Sisters of Charity behind our backs looks very much like the old relation-ship between church and state. The very fact that he is talking to the nuns despite their record of abuse and contempt for survivors is compounding the churches’ crimes and is an arrogant dismissal of the overwhelming vote for women’s reproductive rights.
The Campaign against Church Ownership of women’s healthcare was established with a sense to urgency in order to stop the imminent handover of the new NMH. The Sisters of Charity, despite their claims that they have divested from the new hospital, are set to become the owners of the new NMH as it will be under the control of St Vin-cent’s, their private healthcare empire. Minister Simon Harris is expected in the coming weeks to sign the legal contract without recourse to the Dail.
Holles St, also known as the National Maternity Hospital urgently needed a new hospital and Minister Harris commissioned Kieran Mulvey, the former labour relations maestro, to draw up a report. In the 2016 Mulvey Agreement report Holles Street agreed to a takeover bid by St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which is owned and controlled by the Irish Sisters of Charity.
The Mulvey report gave rise to widespread public outrage. In 2017 a My Uplift petition opposing the Sisters of Charity as sole owners was launched and got over 104,000 signatures. A significant demonstration to the Dail piled on the pressure with the demonstrators carrying a huge ream of paper petitions extending the length of the protest. This led in 29th May 2017 to the Sisters of Charity (SOC) announcing that they were ending their involvement with St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG) and transferring ownership of SVHG to a new company with charitable status which would be called St Vincent’s.
This move by the nuns / SOC was intended to allay fears of any possible religious influence on the ownership and governance structure of the new publicly-funded €350 million NMH, as ownership by them would be seen as incompatible with providing the full range of women’s reproductive healthcare. This is even more so the case as a result of the repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Despite their claim of divesting the ethos will remain Catholic as the new NMH be-coming part of St Vincent’s means it will answer to St Vincent’s with its catholic ethos and not to the state. The Mulvey report agreed that the Chair of the Board of the new NMH will report to the clinical director of St Vincent’s. This in effect will mean more Catholic control not less – abortion, the morning after pill, sterilisation and vasectomy are all banned in Vincent’s hospitals. An ethos that places women’s health and lives at risk has no place in a national maternity hospital.
The State and the church
Following the uproar and demonstrations, to defuse the situation Minister Harris agreed to negotiate a deal between the NMH, St Vincent’s and the state. These talks are still ongoing. At the outset Harris said he would report in a month but it is now well over a year and he is still negotiating. He has said he will report out-side the Dail. This is the government that claims to be for transparency. The only people he needs to inform are the people and in particular the women of Ireland who voted for repeal. We demand Harris break off contact with organizations who have a disreputable history of abuse against women and an entrenched history of denying women access to essential medical reproductive procedures. The massive Yes vote for choice and a woman’s right to choose must be respected now.
We demand an ending of the talks and demand that the hospital be in put in public ownership with a secular ethos. The new hospital must be owned by the people if abortion is to be guaranteed; Public funding of the new build must be made condi-tional on public ownership of the new hospital. It cannot be built on the grounds of St Vincent’s. An alternative should be to expropriate the land from the nuns as part compensation for the crimes they have committed against so many vulnerable people and children, although nothing can compensate people for the horrors that were done to them and for those who died as a result of their cruelty.
We have the model of James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown which is a public hospital.
We have to be conscious of the nature of the Irish state. When it was founded after the civil war it had a very reactionary character (many would say a counter revolutionary character) the church was given a very central role, the social obligations of the state were handed to church control and we are now fully aware that in these areas abuse of highly criminal nature became routine. Slavery, the kidnapping and trafficking of babies and abuse of a sexual and violent nature are crimes which if committed by any organisation other than religious would lead to the closure of those enterprises and their assets seized not to mention hard jail time for the perpetrators. But the church because of its central role as an essential prop of state power has instead been gradually rehabilitated.
Immediately after the repeal vote Leo Varadker announced the need to rebuild a new relation-ship with the catholic church. Is this gifting of the NMH to the SoC to be the foundation of this new relationship?
The Campaign was set up in late June. Since then we have gained wide sponsorship, organized a successful Education Day on Oct 20th and press conference on Thursday 22nd and are seeing the mushrooming of sup-port groups across the country.
Nonetheless there remains a widespread lack of knowledge of what’s happening. People are taken in by the liberal wing of the government around Simon Harris. They can’t envisage that he would do a deal behind closed doors with the nuns and Church and subvert the vote of the people given his support for repeal. Unfortunately, that what is set to happen – 350 million of taxpayer’s money is set to be handed over to a private religious healthcare consortium – SVHG own St Vincent’s University hospital, St Vincent’s private, St Michael’s and now the new NMH. This privatization of our health service and continuation of the neo liberal policy of a two tier health service will not be allowed to proceed by the women and people of this country.
Why would the SoC and St Vincent’s sign up to a legal agreement that would damage their healthcare empire. Why would we believe this? The same SoC refused to pay the 3 million to the redress scheme. In 2002, the Sisters of Charity, who operated five residential schools, signed up to a shared €128m. indemnity bill agreed with the State. They have yet to contribute. Following publication of the Ryan report in 2009, the order offered a further €5m. but to date, it has paid just €2m. The Sisters of Charity also owned Magdalene laundries. Requests by UN committees, including the UN Committee against Torture, to contribute to the State redress scheme have been ignored. In 2013, the nuns announced that they would not be making any contribution to reparations for women incarcerated in their laundries.
Dr Peter Boylan said;
“Over a year ago, I asked to be provided with a single example anywhere in the world of a hospital operating under Catholic ethos which provides the full range of women’s healthcare. I am still waiting”.
We have a fight on our hands. The separation of church and state will require a veritable revolution to achieve. But we have the momentum on our side. The youth and young women of this country voted in vast numbers for change they will not tolerate a shoddy deal which cheats them out of their victory and threatens continued abuse and denial of women’s rights.
The Minister of Health assures us that any medical procedures that are in accordance with the law of the land will be carried out and the states interests protected. What we can expect is continued distress and disaster for patients and court case after court case.
The majority of our so called public hospitals in Ireland operate under a religious ethos. If we lose the battle to make the NMH a public hospital with a secular charter it will be all the more difficult to remove the clerical ethos from the country’s main hospitals. We are determined to stop the handover of the new NMH and then go on to remove the church from ownership and control of women’s healthcare
Make the demonstration in Dublin on Dec 8th a success.
Publicize the petition. Demand TDs respect the referendum vote and insist the new hospital be public and secular.
We will accept nothing less.
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