‘Crucial’ legislation on maternity deaths is held up

Delays are ‘utterly disgraceful’ and ‘beyond acceptable’, says Clare Daly

It is hoped mandatory post-mortem examinations will prevent  maternal deaths like Savita Halappanavar

It is hoped mandatory post-mortem examinations will prevent maternal deaths like Savita Halappanavar

 

Legislation mandating inquests into all maternity deaths has been delayed, more than one year after it was promised in the Dáil.

The Department of Justice argues that the delay is down to “complex drafting requirements”, as the Dáil once again prepares for summer recess.

Last May, then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald said the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2017 would be moved through all stages and passed before the summer recess of 2017. At the time, Ms Fitzgerald said the Bill, which would ensure mandatory post-mortem examinations and inquests into all maternal deaths, was to proceed “as a priority”.

The Bill, originally introduced by Independent TD Clare Daly as a Private Members’ Bill, is also set to strengthen the powers of the coroner and extend legal aid provisions to families in relation to inquest proceedings.

“Deputy Daly’s proposals, which relate to mandatory investigations and inquests into maternal deaths, are being incorporated into a major piece of legislation which will modernise and strengthen the legal powers of coroners in relation to the conduct of investigations and inquests,” a spokesman for the department said.

“As such, it requires particular expertise both in the Department of Justice and Equality and in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, and requires extensive and complex operation on that original Act.

“Regrettably, due to the time sensitivity of some pieces of legislation, such as the Data Protection Act, which had to be passed prior to May 25th, when the GDPR came into force across the EU, there has been some delay in advancing the Coroners (Amendment) Bill.”

’Utterly disgraceful’

The Department of Justice insisted that matters are now “advanced” and that Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan intends to publish the Bill before the Dáil’s summer recess, which is provisionally scheduled to begin on July 13th.

But Ms Daly has branded the delay as “utterly disgraceful” and “beyond acceptable”.

“Despite being told by the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach and everyone else that this was the ‘number one’ priority piece of legislation, the second draft hasn’t been finished,” she said.

“We’re now being told that it ‘might’ be published before the summer recess. That means it will be at least six months – and that’s being incredibly optimistic – before there’s any hope of it passing. Given the urgency of this issue that is beyond unacceptable.’

Ms Daly argues that this legislation is crucial to providing information and solace to grieving families.

“The experience of families who have lost their partners, wives, mothers in our maternity services has been that in every case it’s a huge uphill struggle to get answers about what happened,” she said.

“In every case the struggle to get an inquest in order to get the answers they need has gone on for months and years – an utterly traumatising experience for families who have already suffered the most devastating loss.

“Inquests are crucial in terms of getting information about what went wrong in a maternity unit that lead to the tragic loss of a woman’s life,” Ms Daly said. “Without information, our health services can’t and won’t learn from mistakes, and that makes more tragedy inevitable.”

Tragic deaths

Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless, sociologist at the school of nursing and midwifery at Trinity College Dublin, spearheads the Elephant Collection, an organisation that has been integral in the campaign for mandatory maternal death inquests.

Highlighting the deaths of women such as Sally Rowlette, Savita Halappanavar and Malak Thawley, she argued that mandatory inquests are crucial if maternity services are to be improved.

“Getting mandatory inquests represents only a tiny piece of what women and their families need in this country,” said Dr Murphy-Lawless. “But we need it if we are ever to get really sound, fine maternity care and reproductive health services in this country.”

Based on statistics from Maternal Death Enquiry Ireland, approximately eight to 10 maternal deaths occur each year in Ireland.

Under the Bill, a maternal death is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days after the end of her pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.

The Department of Health argued that Ireland still has a one of the best maternity systems globally, and the Government has committed funds to make necessary improvements.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said its newly established National Women and Infants Health Programme supports the holding of inquests for all maternal deaths “to ensure that we learn all the lessons possible from every tragic event”.