Mother and Child Crisis

views updated

Mother and Child Crisis

The Mother and Child Scheme was a government program to provide free maternity and child care as part of the restructuring of postwar health services approved by Fianna Fáil in 1947. Implementation of the scheme was delayed until after the first interparty government came into office in February 1948 and became the responsibility of the new minister for health, Dr. Noël Browne of Clann na Poblachta. Browne had quickly come to prominence because of his highly successful campaign to eradicate tuberculosis, but when his name came to be linked with the Mother and Child Scheme, he became one of Ireland's most controversial political figures.

Criticism of the scheme had been voiced from the outset, by Fine Gael (which had been in 1947 an opposition party, but by 1948, the senior partner in the interparty government charged with the scheme's implementation); by the Catholic hierarchy; and by representatives of the medical profession. All had expressed the belief that free treatment, regardless of means, represented state intrusion into the lives of families and was contrary to Catholic social ethics. Additionally, the bishops feared that women would learn about contraception and abortion, and family practitioners feared a loss of independence and income.

On 11 October 1950, Browne met the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, and other bishops to discuss their concerns. Believing wrongly that he had reassured them, he publicized his plan to put the scheme into effect, gambling that the popular response would undermine the doctors' opposition. This act precipitated a crisis when McQuaid reiterated his objections to the scheme. Pressured by the taoiseach, John A. Costello of Fine Gael, and his colleagues to come to an accommodation, Browne met McQuaid in March 1951. He asked that the bishops state definitively whether the scheme was contrary to Catholic morals and implied that the outcome might result in his leaving office. The bishops were uniformly hostile and the cabinet refused to proceed with the scheme. Browne's resignation was urged by the Clann na Poblachta party leader Seán MacBride and gladly accepted by Costello on 11 April 1951. Shortly afterwards, the interparty government, which was already disintegrating, fell from office. The affair became the subject of passionate public debate. Opinion was divided, but for the first time the Catholic bishops were widely accused of improper and harmful interference in the affairs of the state.

The Mother and Child crisis was not simply a conflict between church and state; it also arose from the ambiguous relationship between the state and interest groups such as the medical profession, and from ideological and personal differences within the interparty government and Clann na Poblachta. However, the public backlash against the bishops' influence on government policy marked the beginning of the end of the close relationship between church and state.

SEE ALSO Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; Health and Welfare since 1950, State Provisions for; McQuaid, John Charles; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Secularization; Primary Documents: Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951)


Browne, Noël. Against the Tide. 1986.

Cooney, John. John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland. 1999.

Horgan, John. Noël Browne: Passionate Outsider. 2000.

Whyte, John. Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923–1979. 1980.

Susannah Riordan