Irish hospital reportedly keeping brain dead pregnant woman alive

The "life" culture rears its ugly head again

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 19, 2014 5:06PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Gajus</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Gajus via Shutterstock)

In further evidence that in many parts of the world, a fetus has more protections than an adult woman, Irish officials are currently weighing whether or not to honor the wishes of the family of a pregnant, brain dead woman and turn off her life support.

The woman, who is described as being in her mid to late twenties and approximately 16 weeks pregnant, reportedly received a "catastrophic" internal head injury several weeks ago and has a brain clot. But thanks to a 31 year-old Irish law, the fetus she carries is considered as much of a citizen as the woman herself is, and as such, is "fully protected under the law." The Irish Independent reports that the "Doctors were unable to save [the woman], but kept her on life support so her unborn baby could have a chance of life. Now, the woman's parents are said to be considering a legal challenge in order to have her life support terminated-- and the hospital is allegedly likewise seeking legal advice on whether it can accommodate the family's wishes. A source told the Independent this week that "There is also a high possibility the unborn child will not survive."

This is the second potentially landmark challenge to Ireland's abortion restrictions. Earlier this year, a teenaged immigrant who says she was suicidal after a rape that left her pregnant was denied an abortion – even though recent reforms to the law were supposed to help women at serious risk of medical complications or suicide to obtain them. Instead, she says she was coerced into undergoing an early caesarian. The baby is now state custody, and the girl is reportedly moving forward on a legal claim over the government's "refusal to recognize that she was at risk of suicide if she had the child."

This week, Irish Minister for Health Leo Varadkar called the country's current legal system "too restrictive" and said, "While it protects the right to life of the mother, it has no regard for her long-term health. If a stroke, heart attack, epileptic seizure happens, perhaps resulting in permanent disability as a result, then that is acceptable under our laws. I don’t think that’s right. Similarly, it forces couples to bring to term a child that has no chance of survival for long outside the womb if at all. Forcing them, against their own judgment, to explain for weeks and months to all enquirers that their baby is dead."

The current Irish case has echoes of a controversy in Texas earlier this year – one in which the family of Marlise Munoz was forced to wage an agonizing, two month long legal fight for her to be allowed to die after she was pronounced brain dead – and her fetus found to be nonviable – when she was fourteen weeks pregnant. Her husband, the father of her older child, called the state law that had kept her on life support "the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body." A judge eventually had to order doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth to remove her life support. She died in January.

That women – and their grieving families – have to endure the cruel indignity of being reduced to artificially sustained incubators is barbaric. That their families have to fight for the right for them to die is insane. This is happening, in our world, right now. And it's a vicious, outrageous mistreatment of women, one that once again hides behind the notion of protecting life to maintain a grim parody of it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Abortion Ireland Marlise Munoz Reproductive Rights