Irish Court Challenges Abortion Law In Tragic Case

A brain-dead pregnant woman in Ireland who was being kept alive because of the country's stringent pro-life laws will be taken off life support following a ruling from Ireland's High Court. The pregnant woman, whose name has been withheld for her family's privacy, had been on life support since Dec. 3, when she reportedly suffered a serious fall several days earlier. The woman was barely 15 weeks pregnant at the time, but doctors refused to take her off life support, fearing they would be charged with negligence by the state for causing the inevitable death of the fetus.

On Friday, the High Court concluded the fetus had no chance of surviving, as the woman's body was quickly deteriorating. "It would be a distressing exercise in futility for the unborn child [to keep the woman on life support]," the High Court wrote.

The court acknowledged that the tragedy has been "destructive" to the woman's family, the unborn fetus, and the remains of the woman, who was now being denied the right to die with dignity. The High Court wrote:

[To] maintain and continue the present somatic support for the mother would deprive her 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 consequences. ... The condition of the mother is failing at such a rate and to such a degree that it will not be possible for the pregnancy to progress much further or to a point where any form of live birth will be possible.

A medical consultant who testified before the High Court said it would not be appropriate to keep the pregnant woman on life support until 32 weeks — when the unborn fetus would be able to survive outside the uterus — because of the woman's state. "The child is in a very abnormal environment and it can become non-viable for a variety of reasons," the court wrote. The judges also recognized that there were virtually no cases of a fetus being carried to term when a brain-dead patient was just 14 or 15 weeks pregnant at the time of death.

A heavily Catholic country where abortion is criminalized in almost all cases, Ireland grants equal rights to an unborn fetus under the Eighth Amendment — a fact that has come under fire in this most recent case, where many critics have said that even in death, the state believes the rights of an unborn fetus trumps the rights of a woman. Irish activists, citizens and even an archbishop criticized the government for turning a brain-dead woman into an "incubator" for an undeveloped fetus. The case became another chapter in the #notavessel and #repealthe8 movements in Ireland, which sparked earlier in 2014 following the news that a suicidal pregnant woman who was raped was denied an abortion by the Irish state and forced to undergo a C-section.

Although Ireland's anti-abortion laws were built around Catholic dogma, which bars abortion in all circumstances and protects the sanctity of human life until "natural death," Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told Irish media this week that it was unethical to keep the pregnant woman on life support. "There is no obligation to use extraordinary means to maintain a life," the archbishop said. "That applies both to the woman and to the child."

While this will be a landmark case for women's rights in Ireland, the High Court also issued quite a blow to Irish reproductive rights activists in the state. Recognizing that Ireland's constitution states the life of the unborn must be defended "as far as practicable," the High Court questioned how far these rights can be defended. Although the court ultimately challenged the Eighth Amendment, the court still seemed to state that woman are still a "vessel" even in death. The High Court ruled that women certainly have the right to die with dignity, but the rights of the unborn "must prevail over the feelings of grief and respect for a mother who is no longer living."

Image: Abortion Rights Campaign/Facebook