DUBLIN (AP) — Irish doctors who have been keeping a brain-dead pregnant woman on life support in hope of saving her 17-week-old fetus pleaded in court Tuesday to be permitted to turn off the machines because their treatment was becoming horrific and could not end in a successful birth.
Dublin High Court heard harrowing testimony from seven doctors, the woman's partner and father in a case that has reignited debate over the inadequacy of abortion law in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country with a constitution that gives the fetus an equal right to life. All agreed that the fetus appeared doomed.
"My daughter is dead. The chances of the fetus surviving are minimal, we have been told. I want her to have dignity and be put to rest," the woman's father told a packed courtroom. The court withheld their identities from the public to protect the family's privacy.
He said his daughter's two young children had been told that their mother was dead, but would rest in the hospital with nurses "until the angels come."
The three-judge panel said it would hear lawyers' closing arguments on Christmas Eve and give its judgment Friday, an unprecedented measure on what is a national holiday in Ireland, St. Stephen's Day. Different legal teams are representing the woman, her family, the hospital and the fetus.
Doctors said the patient, in her late 20s, suffered a head wound in a bathroom fall while hospitalized Nov. 29, experienced catastrophic fluid buildup in her brain, and was declared clinically dead Dec. 3.
All said her family should have been permitted to bury her weeks ago, but Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion — requiring doctors to take all possible measures to protect the life of a fetus — made them fearful of turning off her life support and risk facing a lawsuit from anti-abortion activists or even a murder charge.
Dr. Frances Colreavy, an intensive care specialist, said she had inspected the woman's body Monday and found it unrecognizable in comparison to the woman's photo by her bedside.
Colreavy said she had practiced medicine for decades in Ireland and Australia and never witnessed a clinically dead person being kept on life support for so long. She said the woman's blood was becoming increasingly toxic.
Dr. Peter McKenna, former master of Dublin's Rotunda Maternity Hospital, said the treatment, if not stopped now, would go "from the extraordinary to the grotesque."
In their testimony, doctors offered varying estimates on when the fetus might be delivered with an acceptable chance of survival, if not good health. McKenna said it could be attempted when the fetus reached 28 weeks, still more than two months away, impractically long given the body's accelerating collapse.
Irish doctors have appealed for decades for clearer legal guidelines on when they may terminate a pregnancy. Irish law currently permits this only when deemed necessary to save the woman's own life, itself a bitterly debated test. An estimated 4,000 Irishwomen travel to neighboring England each year for abortions.