A country’s healthcare system—the protection and healing of some its weakest people, its sick and injured—could be considered to be one of the most definitive expressions of its national morality. In recent decades, Ireland has experienced profound cultural changes; from a mostly monocultural and religious society to a multi-ethnic one, where secular ideas predominate. Economically, it is largely neoliberal, with one of the world’s most open economies, and one of its lowest corporate tax rates; though there is also a welfare state. Its healthcare system has reflected these cultural changes. The system has evolved, gradually, from being run almost exclusively by religious groups, to becoming essentially secular in nature (though religious groups are still involved at the ownership level). Overall, the system is run according to the two competing secular ideologies which currently predominate; it is a two-tier system, with a mix of a neoliberally oriented (though government subsidized) private system, and a public system. The latter has been starved of resources in recent decades; so to achieve good, or at times adequate healthcare, it is almost essential to have private health insurance (which about half of the population have).
This two-tier system has led to significant concerns and occasional scandals; for example, patients dying while on waiting lists for public treatment, who could have been treated and possibly saved if they had health insurance. A purely ethical approach to healthcare—with the aim of healing the sick—has been mixed with competing motives, such as the desire for profit in the private sector, or for short term savings and box-ticking in the public system. Thus, good healthcare practice and best moral practice are being undermined by competing agendas.
In this article, I describe and reflect ethically on the Irish healthcare system, and how it has evolved to its current state. I also discuss how dysfunction in the healthcare system, leading to the death of a pregnant woman, Savita Halappanavar, was a major factor in a constitutional ban on abortion being overturned.