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


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

Lorcan Price, a lawyer and member of Ireland’s Catholic Comment media group, cited a 2010 University of Heidelberg study in telling Aleteia that, “In these extraordinarily rare cases which have arisen in jurisdictions other than Ireland, each case is treated on an individual basis.”

The study, entitled, “One life ends, another begins: Management of a brain-dead pregnant mother — A systematic review” stated that when dealing with brain death in a pregnant woman, “physicians must primarily focus on saving the life of the fetus, and therefore the treatment protocol should give special recommendations on how to support the mother in a way that she can deliver a viable and healthy child.”

As such it was “most regrettable,” Price said, that Ireland’s pro-abortion lobby was willing to “make cynical use of the plight of this woman and her family to try to build a case against Article 40.3.3, even though the same issues arise in jurisdictions with no constitutional protection for the unborn.”

Highlighting the tragic cases of Savita Hallapanavar and “Miss Y” as instances that had been similarly exploited, he noted that the Heidelberg study listed cases in which the gestational age at the time of the mother’s brain death “was 15, 16 and 17 weeks, with the mother being kept on life support and live babies delivered at 32, 31 and 25 weeks respectively."

In the first two cases, he said, the babies’ outcome was fine, but the third died from a complication of prematurity and infection. The review’s ultimate conclusion, he said, was that the question of maintaining vital support was one which must be addressed “on an individual basis."

In the context of the Irish case, he said it made legal sense for the hospital to have maintained vital support until “the position of the unborn child has been fully considered.”

“In the event of a fatal injury to a pregnant woman, having made all necessary efforts to save the woman, the treating medics must consider steps to saving the life of the unborn child,” he said. “If the child has reached a point of ‘viability’ outside the womb a doctor may consider terminating the pregnancy by way of a Caesarean section. In this case the issue to be considered is whether prolonging the mother’s life artificially may on balance have a positive outcome for the unborn child.”

Ireland differs from other countries, Price said, in that doctors have a legal duty to take the life of the unborn child into account, but as the Heidelberg study says, it is in any case normal medical practice to attempt to save the unborn child if doing so is practicable.

Cora Sherlock, deputy chairwoman of Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign, expressed sympathy for the young woman’s family and described what has happened as “one of these most difficult of situations brought about by modern medicine.” Explaining that while it was appropriate, especially in a mature society, that “the life of the baby should be considered,” she nonetheless said that this was not the only factor to be considered.

“Modern medicine puts at the disposal of doctors a huge range of extraordinary interventions,” she said, “But there is never an obligation to employ extraordinary means.”

Like Price, she cautioned against lobby groups seeking to exploit the situation by pushing for constitutional change, pointing out that “cases like this have arisen elsewhere so it is simplistic when people seek to blame the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution for what is happening.”

The three-judge panel said it would hear lawyers’ closing arguments on Christmas Eve and give its judgment Friday, an unprecedented measure on what is a national holiday in Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day. 

Greg Daly  covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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