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Clinically Dead Irish Woman Kept Alive Against Family's Wishes So Fetus Can Survive

The case of the unidentified woman, who is 16 weeks pregnant, has reignited Ireland's furious debate over its stringent laws against abortion.

by Lara Whyte
Dec 19 2014, 7:40pm

Image via Reuters

A clinically dead woman in Ireland who is 16 weeks pregnant is being kept alive against the wishes of her family, in yet another case that brings into focus the confusion over the legal rights of the fetus enshrined in Ireland's constitution.

The woman is said to be a mother of two in her 20s. It is understood she suffered a "catastrophic internal injury" as a result of a blood clot and was transferred from her home in Ireland's Midlands Region to hospital in Dublin a fortnight ago. Doctors were unable to save her life, but she has been kept on life support so her fetus could survive. She was then transferred to a hospital closer to home with better foetal assessment services, the Irish Independent reported.

The woman's family have expressed their wish for her life support machine to be switched off; however doctors are unwilling to do this. If they remove life support, they could risk prosecution due to Ireland's 8th Constitutional Amendment, voted for by the Irish people in 1983 following a referendum in which a broad anti-abortion coalition won 67 percent of the vote. The amendment states:

"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right. "

The woman's family have brought a legal challenge against the hospital's position and the case is to be heard in the High Court in Dublin on Tuesday. Such an action would place the rights of a pregnant woman against those of the unviable fetus her body is carrying, and has already reignited Ireland's increasingly furious debate on its new abortion law — the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act — which passed after national outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Halappanavar died after medical staff refused multiple requests for a termination on the grounds that she was in severe pain and miscarrying. During the official investigation into her death her doctor said she believed her hands were tied by Irish law — and that she had to put the welfare of the fetus before the possible risks to the mother's life.

Earlier this year, the new law — which allows for abortions in cases of a risk to the life of the mother — appeared to fail its first test with the case of Ms Y, a teenage asylum seeker who sought an abortion after becoming pregnant as the result of a rape. Despite threatening suicide, she was prevented from having a termination and had her baby delivered by Caesarean at around 26 weeks gestation. The baby is now in the care of the state, and enquiries into the case are ongoing.

The 8th Amendment was designed to legislate against abortion, yet experts note the woman in the current case, who is being kept alive effectively as an incubator for an otherwise unviable fetus, did not request an abortion. Irish law lecturer Mairead Enright said she is concerned that the 8th Amendment is being used beyond its original scope to apply to all aspects of maternity care. 

"There is no law that says a fetus has the constitutional right to have a pregnancy prolonged until viability," Enright told VICE News. "The unborn child's right to life only extends to what is practical, you could argue that it is not practical in this case, or you could argue keeping a person as an incubator is inhumane and degrading treatment."

Women's rights campaigners say the case demonstrates, yet again, why the 8th Amendment needs to be repealed. Janet Ní Shuilleabhain from Abortion Rights Campaign told VICE News the case has made the "reality of Ireland's unjust and inhumane abortion laws painfully clear" to the world.

Earlier this year Ireland was criticized by the UN Human Rights Committee over its abortion laws, saying women were being treated as a "vessel and nothing more." It remains unclear whether the Irish state will force a clinically-dead woman to perform this function, against the wishes of her grieving loved ones. 

Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @LaraWhyte