Threat of suicide, hunger strike give rise to controversial law
Published 16/08/2014 | 02:30
WE will never fully know the circumstances that led a young woman to seek a lawful termination of her pregnancy on the grounds that there was a risk to her life from suicide.
Reporting restrictions prevent detailed reports of her plight.
But she must have been terribly distressed, having discovered she was pregnant at a late stage, to seek a termination at more than 20 weeks into her crisis pregnancy.
The woman sought to end her pregnancy by invoking Section 9 of the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act which permits lawful termination on suicide grounds.
The termination was refused by an expert panel.
It was refused even though the consultant psychiatrists on the three-person panel believed that an abortion was justified on suicide grounds, notwithstanding the advanced gestation.
The 2013 act, in line with the Supreme Court decision in the 1992 X case, sets out no time limit for doctors carrying out a medical procedure where a pregnant woman's life is in real and substantial danger due to physical complications or suicide risk.
But guidelines drawn up to assist implementation of the act state that if the unborn baby has reached viability and the woman's life is in danger "the best course of action may be deemed to be an early induction or caesarean section".
It was deemed, in this tragic case, that the best course of option for maternal and foetal health was to deliver the baby.
The option of a caesarean section in lieu of a termination caused further distress to the woman who insisted she wanted a termination.
The woman then refused liquid or fluids - effectively going on hunger strike.
A care order was sought in court to safeguard the mother and baby's welfare amid fears the mother would starve herself.
But she ultimately agreed to have her baby delivered by caesarean section and the baby was born at around 25 weeks before the care order could be finalised.
What could have happened to this vulnerable young woman had she not agreed to give birth to her baby, now expected to be taken into care?
It does not bear thinking about.
And yet, an unborn is now born.
Under the act, doctors are required to "preserve unborn human life as far as practicable", but they cannot compromise the woman's right to life.
As a result, there are no time limits where a mother's life is at risk and termination is therefore legally permissible at a late stage - even if it results in the ending of an unborn life.
The case will no doubt restore the debate around time limits and viability of pregnancy.
It will also raise questions about whether women in Ireland are "vessels and nothing more" as we were described at a recent hearing before the UN in Geneva.
These are tough questions to which there are no easy answers: the only certainty is that tragedy will continue to define Ireland's abortion law.