European court finds Turkey in breach of human rights convention

Medics failed to provide appropriate treatment to woman experiencing miscarriage

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found Turkey had violated article two of the convention, which sets out the right to life, and that Menekse Sentürk had been the victim of “blatant dysfunction” on the part of hospital authorities. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found Turkey had violated article two of the convention, which sets out the right to life, and that Menekse Sentürk had been the victim of “blatant dysfunction” on the part of hospital authorities. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 10, 2013, 06:00

Turkey has been found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights following the failure of medics to provide appropriate treatment to a woman who was experiencing a miscarriage and needed emergency surgery in order to save her life.

In a unanimous judgment yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights said Turkey had violated article two of the convention, which sets out the right to life. The case concerned the death of a pregnant woman following a series of misjudgments by medical staff at different hospitals and the subsequent failure to provide her with emergency medical treatment when her condition was known to be critical.

The court found that the woman, Menekse Sentürk, had been the victim of “blatant dysfunction” on the part of hospital authorities and had been deprived access to the necessary emergency care. The Turkish state therefore failed in its responsibility to protect her physical well-being.


Examined by midwife
The case was taken by Mehmet and Bekir Sentürk, the dead woman's husband and son, respectively.

The court had heard that, on March 11th, 2000, Mrs Sentürk, who was eight months pregnant, went to Karsiyaka public hospital, in western Turkey, complaining of pain. She was examined by a midwife, who considered there was no need to call for the duty doctor.

The couple then went to Izmir State Hospital, where Mrs Sentürk was again examined by a midwife without the duty doctor being called.

As Mrs Sentürk continued to suffer pain, her husband drove her to a third hospital, the Atatürk Training and Research Hospital. She was examined this time by a urologist, who prescribed medication for her.

As her pain did not ease after she returned home, Mrs Sentürk was admitted to Ege University Hospital that evening. She was examined by an emergency doctor and transferred to the gynaecology department, where the doctors found the child was dead.

Mrs Sentürk was told she would have to be operated on to remove the child and, according to the applicants, was then asked to pay a deposit to cover the costs of her hospital admission and the surgery. As they did not have the sum required, the couple were sent to Izmir Gynaecology and Obstetrics Hospital. Mrs Sentürk died without receiving any medical assistance while being transferred in the ambulance.


Investigation
An investigation was carried out by the Turkish Ministry of Health to apportion liability for the death. The country's criminal court reached a conviction in March 2008, but the dead woman's husband and son were dissatisfied with the judgment and appealed on points of law. In 2010, Turkey's Court of Cassation – the final appeals court – ended the proceedings by virtue of the statute of limitations.

In its decision yesterday, the European court accepted the findings of the inquiry carried out by the Turkish authorities, which had highlighted several errors of judgment by the doctors and serious deficiencies in relation to the patient's transfer. It noted that the deceased had been denied access to appropriate emergency treatment, which in itself amounted to a violation of article two.

The Strasbourg court also found the Turkish inquiries, by lasting more than nine years, did not satisfy the requirement for a prompt investigation.

Finally, the court considered it was not necessary to examine whether the applicants’ complaint concerning the unborn child fell within the scope of article two. It stated that, in the absence of a European consensus on the scientific and legal definition of the beginning of life, states enjoyed a wide “margin of appreciation” in this area.