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Occupants of packed courtroom seem to heave in collective distress


A ruling on the case involving a clinically dead pregnant woman is expected on St Stephen's Day

A ruling on the case involving a clinically dead pregnant woman is expected on St Stephen's Day

A ruling on the case involving a clinically dead pregnant woman is expected on St Stephen's Day

The local obstetrician, for the most part, maintained his composure: cool and clinical, the consummate professional as he described the current medical status of his young patient.

But the doctor treating a pregnant young mother-of-two broke down in tears when asked why he referred to her as a patient when the overwhelming medical evidence tendered to the High Court was that she is dead. "She's a little girl with painted nails," the doctor told the High Court, his voice breaking, tears pooling in his eyes. "But she is dead...she is fully dead."

Not for the first time yesterday, the occupants of courtroom number four of the Four Courts appeared to heave in collective distress - fidgety hands, bodies hunched, all efforts at stemming the flow of tears futile.

The enormity of the tragedy, aggravated by a perennial legal uncertainty over the legal status of the unborn, weighed heavily on the packed courtroom as family and clinicians stepped - one weary foot after another - into the witness box.

The first witness was the woman's father, a genteel spirit who explained to a specially convened three-judge court that his grandchildren have been told their mammy is being looked after by the nurses until the angels appear.

The man, who initiated the case, has experienced suffering in his immediate circle, explaining that his wife died from cancer a number of years ago.

Their daughter was a full-time mum, "devoted to motherhood", who had told her children they were having a new brother or sister. He described how his only daughter, who is on life support pending a court ruling about whether it can be withdrawn, is deteriorating before him.

The sight of her body slowly rising up and down even though she is dead, is distressing, he said. Asked by his own Senior Counsel Mary O'Toole if he thought his daughter would support his application to have her life support withdrawn, he said quietly: "I don't know."

A practising Roman Catholic, the woman had not made a living will or executed an enduring power of attorney, to the best of his knowledge.

"My daughter is dead," he said.

"I just want her to have dignity and be put to rest."

The woman's partner was next. He spoke briefly of the joy at the prospect of a new baby, how together they had chosen names. Though upset, he was crystal clear in his view that his partner should not be resuscitated and that her life support be withdrawn.

He returned to sit beside his partner's father, the archaic wooden benches of the Gandon-designed building seemingly unable to bear the burden of their grief.

Far from the often hysterical, high-pitched right to life debates that we frequently witness in Irish society, the High Court was told of the clinical realities and risks of somatic support for a brain-dead woman in the early stages of pregnancy. The world class medical experts called to testify in the action spoke both eloquently and clinically. But the spectre of the perennially divisive abortion politics loomed large over court four in any event.

Dr Peter Boylan, one of the country's leading obstetricians, was asked by High Court President Nicholas Kearns if medical guidelines would be of use to clinicians. This prompted a pointed response from the medic that it would be more helpful if the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was repealed. Asked his views on maintaining life support, Dr Peter McKenna - former Master of the Rotunda - said such a prospect was going from the "extreme to the grotesque".

There appeared to be two certainties from yesterday's medical evidence - that the mother is dead and the prospects for her unborn are at best poor and, at worst, futile.

The court heard that we are all in uncharted waters and that maintaining the woman on life support could bring Irish medicine into experimental territory.

The anger in the room was palpable when the woman's neurosurgeon described how he couldn't fulfil the family's wishes to switch off her life support machine.

The surgeon, who deals with catastrophic brain injury on a daily basis, spoke of how he inserted a drain on her brain, despite knowing in his heart of hearts before she arrived at his hospital that there was no hope for her.

He wanted to give her that one in a thousand chance, but the odds were stacked against her.

"I've seen some dreadful things in neurosurgery, but I've never seen this," he told the High Court, which will give its ruling on St Stephen's Day.

The case continues.

Irish Independent