Life at all costs: Growing up with Ireland’s abortion policies

It was November 27th, 2014.

By now, the story is well known- or at least, the basic facts are. A woman, in the early stages of pregnancy, was admitted to hospital with headaches and nausea. Two days later, she suffered a fall and was later found to be unresponsive. On December 3rd, she was declared clinically brain dead. She had a loving father and was already a mother to two children, aged 6 and 4, with her fiance, also the father of her unborn child. She was just 26.

What follows is bleak, if not outright harrowing. She was brain dead, but the foetus still had a heartbeat. For a period of weeks after her death, her body was maintained by mechanical ventilation and she was fed by a nasogastric tube. She was given high doses of various medications for pneumonia, fungal infections, high blood pressure, fluid build up and urinary tract problems. Physiotherapy was required. When her children came to see her, efforts were made to improve her devastated appearance: make up was applied, but the whites of her eyes were so swollen than they could not close. One of the children became distressed on seeing her. Her body swelled. An open wound on her head became infected. She no longer resembled the photograph of herself on the bedside table.

The woman’s father was told that this course of treatment would continue, ostensibly for the duration of the pregnancy. The idea was to attain foetal viability- to bring into the world the unborn foetus lying inside its brain dead mother while her corpse degenerated around it at a rapid pace. The doctors felt trapped by a decision made in an Irish referendum in 1983, relating to the right to life of the unborn child. Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution states as follows:

“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.”

Her father asked that life support be discontinued, as did her partner. They felt that the support measures were unlikely to safely bring a child into the world. They felt the treatment was experimental and not based on any ethical principle. Medical staff said they felt constrained because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

How is it that Ireland’s doctors find themselves using a dead woman as an incubator, in the vague, unqualified, unscientific hope that a child may be born eventually of the experiment? How is it that this could be, not just legal, but possibly Constitutionally protected?

To find the answer to the question, we have to go back in time and consider the status of women and the unborn in Ireland- as well as Irish society itself.

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