The Eighth Amendment has caused pregnant women with cancer to die and will continue to put them at risk if it is not repealed, an obstetrician has said.
Louise Kenny, a professor of obstetrics and a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, said she had witnessed care being denied to a pregnant woman with cancer because of the State's abortion laws.
“It is an outrageous lie to say that the Eighth has never changed medical management or adversely affected the outcome of a woman with cancer,” said Prof Kenny, who specialises in the management of high risk pregnancies.
“It is a fact that the Eighth Amendment casts a shadow over the care of every woman of reproductive age with complex medical needs in this State.”
Prof Kenny was responding to an opinion article by Prof Eamon McGuinness which appeared in The Irish Times last week.
In his piece, Prof McGuinness said: "For example, a pro-choice meeting in Kildare was recently told that a woman who has cancer while pregnant cannot avail of chemotherapy in Ireland. This is simply false, and it appals me that such a claim would ever be made about our health service. Let there be no doubt: in such a situation, a woman can indeed be treated, even if the treatment leads to a detrimental outcome for the unborn child."
The suggestion that the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees an equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, does not put pregnant women’s lives at risk is disingenuous, Prof Kenny said.
She was involved in the care of the late Michelle Harte, who had to travel to Britain for an abortion while terminally ill with cancer.
In 2010, after she became unintentionally pregnant while suffering from a malignant melanoma, doctors at Cork University Hospital advised her to terminate her pregnancy.
She said the treatment of cancer had “advanced considerably in the last decade” with many of the newer options involving drugs that target the immune system rather than the traditional chemotoxic agents.
“At the current time, many of these promising treatments are only available by participating in large randomised controlled trials. For obvious reasons, a woman who is pregnant or who becomes pregnant cannot participate in clinical trials,” she added.
Prof Kenny said that in the case of Ms Harte, who was in the first trimester of her pregnancy when she presented, a termination could have been performed but she was “hamstrung” by an absence of clear guidelines and confusion and uncertainty about the legal interpretation of the risk to her patient’s life.
The hospital’s ethics committee concluded that there was no immediate risk to Ms Harte’s life, and advised against performing a termination.
“My patient’s only option was to travel to the UK but there were further delays because she did not have a passport nor the financial means to do so,” said Prof Kenny. “As she had stopped her treatment, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She eventually travelled to Britain for an abortion by which stage she was severely ill.
“When Michelle returned she gave numerous press interviews, despite being so sick. She was determined that her story be heard and that the effect the Eighth Amendment has on women’s health be fully understood.”
Ms Harte died in November 2011 shortly after receiving “substantial” compensation from the State.
Prof Kenny said, “in the coming weeks it is vitally important we have an open and respectful debate. This decision is hugely important, and it must be based on facts, not opinion.”