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Mercy Sister board member at NRH raised ‘assisted death’ position

A board member at the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), who is a Sister of Mercy, queried whether the hospital had “any interest” in making a submission on assisted dying. The NRH is a Catholic voluntary publicly funded hospital “under the care of the Sisters of Mercy and jointly held in trust” with the Minister for Health, as described in its constitution.

At a NRH board meeting on 29 March, Sr Helena O’Donoghue “raised whether the issue of assisted dying had any relevance to the NRH and did the NRH have any interest in making a submission on same”, according to minutes seen by the Medical Independent. The comment was made following an update regarding the ethics committee.

According to minutes, board Chair Mr Kieran Fleck “thanked Sr Helena for identifying this matter and after general discussion it was agreed that a coordinated approach through the VHF [Voluntary Healthcare Forum] whose ethos would speak loudly would be the appropriate submission avenue”, outlined the minutes obtained under Freedom of Information law.

Sr O’Donoghue, appointed to the NRH board in 2014, is formerly the Provincial Leader of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in its south central province. Under the NRH constitution published on the hospital’s website, its affairs shall be managed on behalf of the congregation by a board of management, which shall be responsible to the Provincial Leader. “In such management regard shall be had to the preservation of the character and associations of the hospital.”

The VHF is a representative body for board members of 16 voluntary organisations, which are among the leading providers of health services in Ireland and operate many of the country’s largest hospitals. Some member organisations were formed under a religious ethos. No response was received from the NRH and VHF by press time. The issue of assisted dying has come under the spotlight through the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020. Religious influence in Irish hospitals has been a matter of ongoing controversy, including during the debate on abortion.

In recent weeks, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly reiterated that the Religious Sisters of Charity will not play any role in the governance or operation of the new National Maternity Hospital, which is to be established at St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. The religious order has also said they will have no role in the hospital or St Vincent’s Holdings, a new entity to which their shareholding will be transferred.

However, Social Democrats Co-Leader Deputy Róisín Shortall has said “concerns remain that the constitution of this new corporate entity will mandate a Catholic ethos, which necessarily limits the type of reproductive healthcare that women can receive”. Deputy Shortall has established a cross-party group on the issue.

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