I’m not pro-choice. Nor am I pro-life. I reject both of those labels because they’ve been used in such a pejorative way for so long that they have come to denote extreme views on both sides of the debate around the rights of women and the rights of unborn children that to identify as one automatically makes you a target of hatred and abuse from the other. The recent tribulations of Dawn Purvis, Director of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast are proof, if it were needed, of this.
What I am is pro-woman and no more so than today following the delivery of the judgement of the High Court in Dublin this morning that doctors could remove life support from a pregnant woman who is brain dead.
This case was effectively about the law hampering medical professionals from using their clinical judgement in the treatment of a patient. The medical facts of the case are deeply disturbing and harrowing, set out in this report by Dearbhail McDonald from Christmas Eve. I cannot even begin to contemplate the trauma of the family and indeed medical staff keeping alive a young woman described variously in legal submissions as “the deceased” and a “corpse.
The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, passed and enacted in 1983 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.” Doctors sought the court’s permission to withdraw life support, fearing prosecution because of this constitutional position.
The woman’s family wanted life support withdrawn, her father wanting her “to have dignity and be put to rest,” a position shared by the woman’s partner and father of her children – two little children who’d been told the nurses and doctors were watching over Mammy until the angels could come and get her. Medical experts agreed that the chances of the baby surviving if the woman were kept alive until perhaps 32 weeks gestation were very small, certainly her health and numerous infections were a contributing factor to the baby’s viability.
One cannot help but be reminded of the case of Savita Halappanavar who died in Galway University Hospital in 2012. She was seriously ill with sepsis and an abortion might have saved her life but despite her requests, it was denied to her – the 8th amendment a factor in the doctor’s decision.
It may be assumed that this ruling, a 29-page written judgement which will no doubt be studied in great depth in the coming weeks and months, is a victory for common sense which means that the life of a mother may not be artificially sustained in order to ensure an unborn baby reaches viability outside the womb but that is not the case. The court’s finding was very case-specific and determined that the medical evidence in this case lead the three judges to conclude that the continuation of life support for the mother was an exercise in futility in respect of the unborn.
What that means is that we could see another case of similar circumstances back in the High Court in future where a woman is kept alive artificially for three weeks, as in this case, whilst medical tests and legal arguments seek to determine just how likely her baby is to be born alive.
What that means is that another Savita Halappanavar could die because the legal system wouldn’t move quickly enough to deliver a ruling before sepsis killed her.
Before we begin congratulating ourselves in the north that we’re not as backward as Dublin, let me remind you of Sarah Ewart who had to travel to England for an abortion last year when her unborn child was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality and had no chance of surviving after being born.
It doesn’t matter what political jurisdiction you live in on this island, once you’re pregnant the law won’t support or protect you, not even if you’ve been raped or are a victim of incest. Not if your baby can’t survive beyond birth, not if your pregnancy will kill you, not if you’re brain dead. You’ve become merely an incubator – a non-person. In the pursuit of protecting the rights of the unborn child, we are hamstringing the rights of pregnant women. Our political leaders north and south must become pro-woman – that’s the only way we can stop these horrors that never seem to end.
A young woman and her baby will stop breathing today in a Dublin hospital and her Daddy, her partner and her children will mourn their passing. May they rest in peace.