Judgment on brain-dead pregnant woman wins award

Decision to allow switching-off of life support honoured for ‘promoting gender equality’

The award concerns a judgment issued by a three-judge High Court in December 2014, in a case by a woman’s father against the HSE.

The award concerns a judgment issued by a three-judge High Court in December 2014, in a case by a woman’s father against the HSE.


A High Court decision that a clinically brain dead pregnant woman could be taken off life support because there was no genuine prospect of her baby being born alive has won an award for “promoting gender equality”.

The Gender Justice Uncovered Bronze Gavel Award 2015, made by Women’s Link Worldwide, an international human rights organisation, was made in recognition of the judgment’s “positive impact on gender equality, guaranteeing the human rights of women and girls”.

The award concerns a judgment issued by a three-judge High Court on December 26th, 2014, in a case by a woman’s father against the HSE.

The then president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, Ms Justice Marie Baker and Ms Justice Caroline Costello comprised the three-judge court, which heard the case as a matter of urgency over three days in Christmas week 2014.

Women’s Link Worldwide said it organises the awards each year to raise awareness of the impact of judicial decisions on the lives of women and girls and the importance of the work of the judiciary. Nominations are made for awards that either promote or set back gender equality, it said.

Clinically dead

The woman, aged in her 20s and referred to as Miss P, was at 15 weeks’ gestation when declared clinically dead on December 3rd at a Dublin hospital.

That arose from a brain trauma suffered at a hospital outside Dublin on November 29th, two days after she was admitted there complaining of severe headaches.

Due to concerns by doctors at the Dublin hospital over the legal implications of her pregnancy, arising from the State’s obligation to vindicate the right to life of the unborn in Article 40.3.3. - the 1983 anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution - she was kept on somatic life-support treatment.

Her father, supported by her partner and extended family, sought court orders stopping the somatic treatment so they could bury her “with dignity”.

Of seven doctors who gave evidence, none argued the treatment should continue or that there was any realistic prospect of her baby being born intact if the treatment continued.

The court heard Miss P’s condition was deteriorating, her brain was decomposing and there were concerns about the effect on the unborn of that condition and of drugs being administered to the woman.

In its judgment, the court found the prospect for the unborn is “nothing but distress and death”.

The court believed Miss P would “have fought long and hard to bring her unborn child to term”, but that intention fell well short of any expression of a view her predicament and that of her unborn child should continue.

Authorise withdrawal

Based on the evidence, the court found the woman suffered brain stem death on December 3rd and it was in the best interests of the unborn child to authorise, at the discretion of the medical team treating the woman, withdrawal of the somatic treatment.

The court said the unborn in this jurisdiction has the constitutional guarantee of a right to life and a necessary part of vindicating that right was to inquire into the practicality and utility of continuing life support measures.

It accepted this unborn child was facing into a “perfect storm” from which it had no realistic prospect of emerging alive. It was influenced by any consideration that, if the unborn child was born alive, it would be impaired to a greater or lesser degree, it stressed.

The court also believed maintenance of somatic support would deprive the mother of dignity in death and subject her family to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences”.

It added it was not impressed by arguments Miss P had no right to dignity because she had been declared brain dead.