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Irish Court Considers If Brain-Dead Woman Should Remain On Life Support To Protect Unborn Child

Pro-life march in Dublin Ireland


Greg Daly - published on 12/23/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Campaigners caution against opportunistic attempts to remove constitutional restraint on abortion.

A clinically dead but pregnant woman is being kept on life support because lawyers believed the Irish Constitution demanded it, Ireland’s High Court was told Tuesday.

The court heard that the young mother of two and her partner had discussed and chosen male and female names for her unborn child; they had been looking forward to the birth, and planned to get a house together.

In late November, however, the woman experienced headaches and vomiting. She fell in a bathroom of the local hospital on November 29, a week after her admission, and after returning to bed became unresponsive. She was sent for a CAT scan which revealed that she was suffering from a brain edema — an accumulation of fluids in the brain — and was transferred to Dublin Beaumont hospital, the national neurological center. A cerebral angiogram established that there was no blood flow through her brain, and on December 3 she was declared dead.

Neurosurgeons treating the woman recommended that life support be switched off, but one member of the team reportedly expressed concerns about legal issues, given the woman’s pregnancy and the fact that Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution imposes on the State the qualified duty to “defend and vindicate” the right to life of unborn children, ”as far as practicable.”

Lawyers for Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) became involved, and although the woman’s family and partner agreed that life support should be turned off, the HSE kept vital functions operational with a view to saving the unborn child, which is currently at 18 weeks gestation.  

Today, however, HSE lawyers told the court the HSE believes life support should be discontinued. Senior Counsel Gerry Durcan said the medical evidence indicates that there is no reasonable prospect of the child being born alive, even if the mother’s vital functions are maintained, and that as such it is not practicable to vindicate the child’s right to life.

Dr. Brian Marsh, a consultant in intensive care at Dublin’s Mater Hospital, explained to the court that the woman’s body was afflicted with a chest infection, a urinary tract infection, and two infections in the head, and required ventilator, hormonal, and nutritional support.  Conditions were unlikely to remain stable, he said, and he doubted that things could be sustained for a further 14 weeks, to a point where delivering the child would be appropriate. Dr. Frances Colreavy, one of Marsh’s colleagues, said that in her clinical opinion it was neither possible nor advisable to continue supporting vital functions.

“The unborn baby also has a right to life under the Constitution,” according to David Quinn of Dublin’s Iona Institute, adding that, “but that right to life does not mean that a baby must be kept alive by any means, no matter how disproportionate. So what the court has to decide is whether or not the means of keeping the baby alive in this case is disproportionate or not.”

Situations like this, while not common, are far from unique. Only last Thursday, December 18, a baby boy was delivered at 32 weeks in Milan, despite the child’s mother having suffered a brain hemorrhage and died in October during her 23rd week of pregnancy, and this February in Canada another baby boy, Iver Benson, was delivered at 28 weeks, six weeks after his mother, Robyn, had been declared dead following a massive brain hemorrhage.  

Father Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Maynooth and a former doctoral student of Pope Benedict XVI, said a case such as the Benson one involved a “prudential decision.” Explaining that Church teaching does not demand that extraordinary means be employed to keep a person alive, he told Catholic Ireland that “the difficulty is that normally this is applied to the patient, but here the means are meant to keep the woman alive so that the child can develop naturally.”

While the general principle, he said, is that “if you can promote life, keep a life, you should do all you can to do so,” he said other factors needed to be considered, not least the burden treatment would impose on the hospital and the family of the bereaved, as well as whether the hospital’s resources might be better used to save another life.

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