"Keeping her alive in this way strips her of all her legal rights"

Medical law expert speaks to Newstalk about clinically dead pregnant woman being kept alive

A case was presented in the High Court on Monday 15th December 2015, in relation to the continuance or not of life support for a pregnant woman.

The mother of two, who is 17 weeks pregnant with her third child, is being kept alive after suffering catastrophic internal injuries due to a blood clot.

Her parents are her next of kin and say they want her to be allowed to die.

The President of the High Court adjourned the matter until December 23rd.

Dr Ruth Fletcher is a Senior Lecturer in Medical Law at Queen Mary University in London. She told Breakfast keeping the mother alive poses difficult questions about her legal rights.

  1. Dr Fletcher stated that according to current laws, the life support would be withdrawn in these situations: "Partially because the law is unclear about how Article 40.33 should apply in these incidences, it's obviously created an awful dilemma for the medics in this situation. 

    "Normal legal and clinical practice in tragic situations like this where someone is actually clinical dead, normally you would allow that person to have a dignified death and switch off the life support system and allow the family to grieve but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be happening in this case."

  2. Dr Fletcher also stated that it is legally permissible to end the child's life in a case like this: "That is because the right to life of the unborn, we can only protect that as far as practicable, that language is in Article 40.33." 

    "The difficulty is that there is no clear guidance about what practicability means. Keeping this woman biologically alive on life support to me looks like degrading treatment, legally we would call it degrading treatment, and so degrading treatment of real human beings is something that's rights violating. That woman, as a pregnant woman, is a full legal person before the law. She had her right to dignified death, she had a right to be free of degrading treatment. 

    "Keeping her alive in this way strips her of all her legal rights, it treats her like a machine that is being used to keep the foetus alive in this instance even though we are at a very early stage of pregnancy."

  3. Dr Fletcher also spoke about what may happen if the woman was kept alive until almost full term and a Cesarean was considered: "That is a technical possibility." 

    "What that means, if we think about doing that to a woman in hospital, you think about what that entails legally, it entails treating the legal person... it means treating her as if she is no more than a machine."

She also stated that Article 40.33 "really has to go because more cases like this are going to be generated where you have more uncertainty."

"We need to be able to give medical professionals and the families of loved ones and importantly live pregnant women, the key decision making role in this context and so first of all, Article 40.33 has been operating as a barrier and we need to remove it.

"We need to remove the criminalisation as well of terminations in some of these instances because you inevitably have a chilling effect where even if we remove the constitutional barrier, we need to remove the criminal scrutiny as well of these kinds of situations where everybody waking up from this case just can't believe we are here again."

You can listen to her full interview here:

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