DUBLIN — A clinically dead pregnant Irishwoman was removed from life support Friday after a Dublin court ruled that her 18-week-old fetus also was doomed to die. The case highlighted fear and confusion among doctors over how to observe Ireland's ban on abortion, the strictest such law in Europe, in an age of medical innovation.
The three-judge Dublin High Court ruled that all artificial support for the woman, aged in her late 20s with two young children, should end more than three weeks after she was declared clinically dead. Relatives of the woman, whose identity was concealed by the court, gathered at a hospital in the Irish Midlands to bid a final farewell.
The nation's Supreme Court was placed on standby in event of appeal given the right-to-life constitutional questions at stake. But two teams of lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus said they accepted the ruling.
In their 29-page judgment, the judges accepted testimony from seven doctors who shared the view that the fetus couldn't survive for the needed extra two months to be delivered safely. They detailed how the woman's body was becoming a lethal environment rife with infections, fungal growths, and high temperatures and blood pressure.
The woman suffered irreversible brain death Dec. 3 four days after suffering a severe head injury in a fall. She already had been hospitalized after doctors found a cyst in her brain.
Doctors refused family pleas to turn off a half-dozen machines that regulated oxygen, blood flow, nutrition and waste collection, citing fears they could be sued for negligence or even face murder charges if they cut life-sustaining support for the fetus.
One doctor testified that he and two colleagues couldn't agree how Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion should be applied, given the lack of explicit laws or guidelines for the case. Others described the woman as a corpse unrecognizable from the photo by her bedside. Another doctor noted that the body was being pumped with drugs never authorized for use on a pregnant woman and billed what they were doing as both experimental and, if it persisted, grotesque.
The judges said the woman's life support was "being maintained at hugely destructive cost to both her remains and to the feelings and sensitivities of her family and loved ones." The fetus, they said, faced "a 'perfect storm' from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive. It has nothing but distress and death in prospect."
They said it was wrong to continue to deprive the woman "of dignity in death and subject her father, her partner and her young children to unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences."
The Catholic Church, a key backer of Ireland's abortion ban, questioned why secular authorities had not established clear guidelines for cases where the woman dies and doctors determine that the fetus can't survive on its own.
"There is no obligation to use extraordinary means to maintain a life. That applies both to the woman and to the child," Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said.
"A woman isn't simply an incubator. The relation between a woman and a child is a relationship, and it is very clear that one has to examine at what stage is this fetus, what are the possibilities," he said.
The judges did leave open the possibility that future cases involving clinically dead pregnant women might be handled differently if the fetus was significantly closer to delivery age, even if its deteriorating environment meant a higher risk of defects or abnormalities.
They said Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion commits authorities to defend equally the right to life of the mother and unborn child. Because the mother is already dead in such cases, the judges found, the rights of the living fetus "must prevail over the feelings of grief and respect for a mother who is no longer living."
Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who favors creating more medical exceptions to Ireland's blanket ban on abortion, said the government would study the judgment. He appealed to give the woman's family privacy "at this difficult and challenging time."
Ireland's main anti-abortion group, the Pro Life Campaign, said requiring such cases to go to court "is a sign of a healthy democracy" and demonstrated that Ireland treats matters of life and death seriously.
Irish doctors have appealed for decades for clearer guidelines on when they may terminate a pregnancy. Irish law currently permits this only when deemed necessary to save the woman's own life. Parliament passed this law last year after a 31-year-old woman, suffering a protracted miscarriage, was refused an abortion and died from blood poisoning.
An estimated 4,000 Irishwomen travel each year for abortions in neighboring England, where the practice was legalized in 1967.
High Court judgment, http://bit.ly/1zYaBNn