One of Ireland’s largest hospitals does not provide women with the contraceptive pill – based on its operational ethos as a Catholic institution.
In-patients at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin are not provided with access to the pill, regardless of whether they need it due to illness or are suffering without it.
While doctors are free to prescribe the medication, the hospital does not stock the pill at its on-site pharmacy and expects women to source their own from outside.
Patients who are bed-ridden are required to ask a friend or family member to purchase the pill for them off-site.
Speaking to Newstalk on condition of anonymity, a doctor working at the facility said it was made clear at induction that the pill was contrary to the hospital’s religious ethos.
“They don’t frame it as a question of ‘we don’t have stock’ or ‘we don’t have the funding for it’ or anything like that,” said Dr Murphy (not real name).
“The specific reason was that it was because of the ethos of the hospital.
“They don’t physically have any in the hospital. That is a consistent experience. It has never happened any other way.”
Sisters of Mercy
The private hospital is owned by Catholic group, the Sisters of Mercy with the pledge to “participate in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ” enshrined in its mission statement.
The Department of Health has refused to comment on the revelations – insisting that the Mater is a private institution free to operate under its own ethos and guidelines.
Dr Murphy said that while the hospital is a private institution, it is funded by the government.
“They have to meet basic standards with regards to how you perform surgery, how the doctors operate, our ethical standards of confidentiality - all of these things have to be met,” he said.
“I don’t really think it’s an acceptable get out to say ‘we have our own ethos, we’re not prescribing something’ when it would be considered ethical and normal conduct among doctors."
He said the restrictions are “very frustrating [...] especially in situations when it’s in the woman’s best interest.”
“There are some women who are on this as an actual medication for conditions they have and not for contraception,” he said, adding that is seems "obviously unethical" to refuse a woman medication they need.
National Maternity Hospital
In a statement a spokesperson for the Mater said that the hospitals STI clinic can and does distribute condoms – and confirmed that the contraceptive pill “can be prescribed” to patients.
“Mater Misericordiae University Hospital (MMUH) is predominantly an emergency service provider with major national speciality focus on complex acute care,” said the statement. “It does not specialise in maternity care.”
The situation will do little to calm fears however, that the planned delivery of sole ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital to another religious order, the Sisters of Charity, will compromise its clinical and operational independence.
A department spokesman said the new facility will be operating “very much under a different situation” with a "triple-lock" system in place to guarantee its autonomy and clinical independence.
He said the health minister of the day will have a “golden share” of the board to ensure the facilities medical independence is protected.
Dr Murphy however said he was sceptical as to whether the situation will be any different to what he has experienced at the Mater.
“They are actually very comparable situations,” he said. “There is a similar question of Catholic teaching and morality.
"The Mater is a large university teaching hospital in Dublin run as a voluntary hospital by a religious order with funding from the Department of Health."
“What happened in this situation is that doctors have to act in a different way than they would normally. So to say that this would never happen ... I would be sceptical of that."
Following the controversy surrounding the maternity hospital’s ownership it has emerged that the status of the new facility is to be reviewed.
The chairman of St Vincent's Healthcare Group, Jimmy Menton, says the review is due to "controversy and misinformation" regarding the project.
Additional reporting from Liz O'Malley