Can the Mater Hospital respect the sanctity of human life while complying with the new abortion law?

After blogging recently about the decision of the Mater Hospital in Dublin to comply with the Irish Republic’s new law allowing abortions (up to birth) if the mother’s life is at risk, or if she is threatening suicide, I was relieved to see that one priest has now resigned from the hospital’s board.

I say “relieved” rather than “glad” because one cannot rejoice; it’s a sad day for Ireland, the hospital, the hierarchy and especially for mothers and babies that it has come to this.

The priest in question, Fr Kevin Doran, has said he cannot “in conscience remain” as a member of either the Board of directors or governors of the hospital. He said: “I can confirm that I have resigned because I can’t reconcile my own conscience personally with the statement, largely because I feel a Catholic hospital has to bear witness. It’s all about bearing witness to Gospel values alongside providing excellent care.” He is a brave man and I hope others on the board will now follow his example.

Niamh Ui Bhriain, head of the Life Institute, commented that the hospital’s decision “is appalling on many levels.” She said; “This is a Catholic hospital under the Sisters of Mercy who also sit on the board. Had the congregation now agreed to perform abortions? Is the ethos of the hospital now to end human life under a law enacted for political rather than medical purposes?”

Fr Doran’s statement and the comment by Ui Bhriain are unambiguous. But there are some puzzling responses to the news of the hospital’s compliance. For a start, Catholic World News relates that the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement called “Care for Life: It’s Worth It” to commemorate the Day for Life on October 6.

The statement read: “We can build a culture of life by our compassion and care for others, especially those who are vulnerable and by speaking of the need to care for life. It means seeing life as a whole, caring for it as a ‘seamless garment’, stretching from conception to natural death.” The bishops singled out “care for unborn children and their mothers”, “care for people who are elderly” and “care for those who are suicidal and their families” in their message.

How does this sit with an earlier statement by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin that he “would be seeking further clarifications over the exact meaning of the hospital’s statement”? And why single out “those who are suicidal” unless it is an oblique reference to the new bill’s provision for mothers threatening suicide? Further, why the silence of the bishops over the single most important current event – the government’s new bill – that in its wording goes directly against the Day for Life?

Catholic World News also reports the contradictory remark of a nurse-tutor at the Mater hospital, that it “won’t be performing abortions.” Sister Eugene Nolan explained that it is “a matter of how we deal with complicated situations. If we do lose babies it’s not because we set out to.” She added that in the past five years five women had been successfully treated at the Mater Hospital for life-threatening conditions during pregnancy. “I guarantee you, in England those babies would not have been born, the pregnancies would have been terminated”, she said.

Sister Eugene seems to be saying that the bill is irrelevant because good medical and nursing practice will always care for both mother and child in life-threatening circumstances. But “losing babies” is quite different from deliberate termination; it is a tragic happening that could not be avoided. So why has the hospital also stated that it will comply with the new law? Does it intend to carry on as before, providing excellent care for mothers and babies, while pretending to observe the new law?

There is the further odd statement of Sister Eugene, that she is not sure of her own future tenure at the hospital: “I don’t know where we go now. I’m going to see.” I’m inclined to think that Fr Doran knows the writing really is on the wall and has acted accordingly, and that Sister Nolan still secretly hopes that the new bill will make no difference to the hospital – and doesn’t see its stark implications.