Irish abortion law puts Catholic hospitals in precarious spot

When Ireland’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law in July, legalizing abortion in a country firmly committed to the protection of human life, public and political opposition focused on the legislation’s assault on the rights of the unborn.

But recent events at Dublin’s Mater Misericordiae University Hospital have brought to light the dangers it poses to freedom of conscience, and raised pressing and difficult questions about the future of Catholic health care in the country.

Founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1861, the hospital is committed through its mission statement to “participate in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ” and “respect the dignity of human life.” It is also one of 25 hospitals obligated by Section 17 of the recently passed act to carry out abortions on its premises.

Priest’s resignation

In August, Father Kevin Doran, a member both of Mater’s board of directors and board of governors, informed the Irish Times that, as a Catholic hospital, Mater could not comply with the new law. Then, in late September, Mater released a statement announcing that it would “comply with the law as provided for in the act” — prompting Father Doran to resign from his post.

Ireland’s abortion debate remains heated, and the Mater case has generated its fair share of headlines. But Father Doran has no desire for controversy or publicity.

Regretful that his previous comments to the Irish Times were interpreted by some as an attack on the hospital itself, he is keen to stress that this is “a conflict between me and the health minister, not the hospital,” and is certain his former colleagues “all wish to be at the service of life.” Nevertheless, as his own statement issued after his resignation makes clear, Father Doran feels the hospital’s response was the wrong one. 

“It indicates without qualification a willingness to abide by the terms of the act,” he said. “I think it will be much more difficult for them, having issued this statement, to maintain a pro-life stance in practice or to be seen as witnesses for life.”

Compelled to comply

Father Doran
Father Doran

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed to provide, in the words of the Irish government, “legal clarity” to the circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is permissible in Ireland. Prior to the act’s passage, Irish hospitals were able to carry out terminations if strictly medically necessary to prevent maternal death — providing first that all effort had been made to preserve the life of the child. But never before have they been legally compelled to carry out procedures that directly and intentionally target the life of unborn children.

While the act allows individual medics to opt out of performing abortions, it stipulates they must then refer women to a colleague willing to perform the procedure instead, thus offering no protection to hospitals with a pro-life ethos. 

Sen. Ronan Mullen, one of the act’s staunchest opponents in the Seanad, or upper house of Ireland’s parliament, is unsurprised by the controversy the new law has caused. “Once the state provides for abortion, as distinct from necessary medical procedures to save a mother’s life, that’s inevitably going to cause problems for people who respect the right to life,” he said. “Father Doran stands 100 percent for best quality medical care for pregnant women. What he opposes is the provision of abortion in very controversial circumstances.”

‘Fundamental change’

Those controversial circumstances are set out in Section 9 of the act, which permits abortion as treatment for women suffering suicidal ideation. Both the legal and medical necessity of such provisions was contested earlier in the year by expert witnesses, including obstetricians, perinatal psychiatrists and constitutional lawyers, in hearings on the proposed legislation at the Oireachtas, or national parliament.

Dr. Maria Cahill of University College Cork, who addressed the Oireachtas on the constitutionality of the act, said these provisions are a “fundamental change” in Irish law, and furthermore one in which there was no obligation on the government, from either the Irish Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights, to introduce.

In short, the impetus for this law is political, rather than legal or medical — and Father Doran is not its first casualty. During the act’s passage through the Seanad, eight senators were expelled from their parties for voting against it, while one government minister, Lucinda Creighton, was forced to give up her position for doing so.

“The right of conscientious objection has not been fully vindicated either in the passing or in the substance of the legislation,” Cahill said.

She described its conscience provisions as “weak by international standards, and potentially unconstitutional and in violation of the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

In a tight spot

Given that the act is yet to be implemented, it remains unclear how it will permit Catholic hospitals to operate in practice — and, consequently, exactly what Mater has signed itself up for by confirming it will wholly comply with it. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has said he intends to “seek further clarification” as to the meaning of Mater’s statement, while stressing it is not he but the Sisters of Mercy who are the guarantors of the ethos.

Matters have been complicated further by comments made by a nurse tutor at the hospital, Sister Eugene Nolan, since Father Doran’s resignation. Speaking to the Irish Times, she stated that Mater “won’t be performing abortions,” instead continuing to only offer medically necessary terminations. 

Father Doran hopes she is right, but fears the hospital’s statement has cost them any opportunity to negotiate.

“Issuing a statement like that,” he said, “is like writing a blank check and hoping that the final cost will not be too high.”

David Quinn of the Iona Institute is equally skeptical. “It’s all very well to say ‘we will not carry out abortions,’ but the hospital have said that they will,” he said. “And they did not have to do that any more than the American Catholic Church have to obey Obama’s instruction that they provide insurance cover for abortifacients. They’re not even saying ‘our hand’s been forced by the law, we don’t like this’ — they’ve raised no ethical qualm in their statement at all. It’s poor witness.”

The act has put Catholic hospitals in Ireland in a precarious position. But if the worst comes to the worst, the true victims will not be those put at professional disadvantage — it will be those whose right to life and good medical care people like Father Doran are seeking to protect.

“When we expose ourselves, there is always someone there to take advantage of our weakness,” he said. “And it is often the innocent who suffer.”  

Megan Hodder writes from England.