Sixty years ago today, Noel Browne resigned as Minister for Health in the first Inter-Party government at the insistence of  Taoiseach John A. Costello (and giant in the history of international human rights, Sean MacBride). Demand for his resignation was driven by opposition – within the Catholic Church and the medical profession – to the “Mother and Child Scheme”; a healthcare programme designed to tackle high levels of child mortality in Ireland by introducing free ante and post-natal care for mothers and extending free health treatment to all children under 16 .

The affair resonates strongly with several contemporary debates in Ireland, particularly the debate on the effect of the proposed children’s rights referendum on parental autonomy (see David Quinn here). In October 1950, the Catholic hierarchy explained its opposition to the scheme as follows (see further John Cooney’s biography of John Charles McQuaid):

‘The right to provide for the health of children belongs to parents, not to the State. The State has the right to intervene only in a subsidiary capacity, to supplement, not to supplant.

It may help indigent or neglectful parents; it may not deprive 90% of parents of their rights because of 10% necessitous or negligent parents.”

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Written by Máiréad Enright

Máiréad Enright lectures at Kent Law School. She is also a PhD candidate in the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, University College Cork. Her research interests are in gender and the law, law and religion, citizenship and the political dimensions of private law. You can contact her at M.Enright[at]kent.ac.uk or (+44) 1227 827996.