An Irish High Court ruled Friday that a brain-dead woman’s life support can be turned off even though she is 18 weeks pregnant.
A panel of three judges made the landmark ruling after hearing emotional testimony from the patient’s father, her partner and numerous medical experts. Family members had appealed to the court to allow their loved one to die with dignity and bring an “extremely distressful” situation to an end.
In their decision, the judges described the case as “tragic and unfortunate” and said continuing to keep the patient alive artificially “would deprive her of dignity.”
It would also “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,” Justice Nicholas Kearns said.
The woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, suffered major brain trauma on Nov. 29 and has been clinically dead since Dec. 3.
Doctors were initially planning to switch off the life-support machines, but delayed their decision fearing they could face legal action. Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country, has strict abortion laws. Under Article 8 of its constitution, a fetus is regarded as a citizen of the country and has the same right to life as its mother.
“My daughter is dead, the chances of the fetus surviving are minimal, we have been told,” the woman’s father said in court Tuesday. “I want her to have dignity and be put to rest.”
Article 8 was passed by a referendum in 1983, but the case has reignited calls for it to be eliminated.
The court decision came down to whether the judges believed the fetus could achieve viability outside the womb. Medical experts testified there was minimal likelihood that keeping the woman alive artificially would lead to the birth of a live baby.
No one argued in favor of the life support being kept on, and one specialist said a ruling to keep the woman artificially alive any longer would take the situation from “the extraordinary to the grotesque.”
The woman’s brain was said to be deteriorating, she has several infections, and consultant obstetrician Dr. Peter Boylan said in court that medics caring for her were entering “unchartered territory.”
The woman’s partner told the court he was the father of her children, and that she was again pregnant with him. He said she had been happy to be pregnant again, and they had even begun to discuss names.
Her two surviving children are aware that their mother is sick but have been told that nurses are looking after her “until the angels come.”
The decision will not be appealed to the Supreme Court, according to the Irish Times.
Boyle is a special correspondent.