Leaders: Moral courage in a medical dilemma

In Ireland there are strong laws against abortion and where an unborn child this far into a pregnancy has full constitutional rights. Picture: TSPL
In Ireland there are strong laws against abortion and where an unborn child this far into a pregnancy has full constitutional rights. Picture: TSPL
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Modern medicine provides cures for many conditions that once were incurable, but it also creates some terrible dilemmas, none more so than in the case of the young Irish mother who suffered a traumatic injury in November. Not only has she been kept alive on a life support machine, but so has her unborn child who was in the 18th week of the pregnancy, half way to full term.

Earlier this month, her doctors agreed that all hopes of the mother recovering were gone. But what of her unborn child? Might it survive if the body of the mother was kept functioning?

Medical imperatives seem to have decided this question. The mother’s body was progressively failing to the point that more and more medical intervention would have been required. This would also have steadily reduced the chances of the child being born alive, almost to nil.

The family – the husband and parents of the mother – considered the prognosis and decided, rather bravely, that it would be best for the life support systems to be switched off and for the lives of the woman and her unborn child to come to an end as naturally as possible.

In Britain, that would have been the end of the matter. But this case occurred in Ireland, where there are strong laws against abortion and where an unborn child this far into a pregnancy has full constitutional rights.

Might the doctors who switched off life support have been prosecuted for murdering the foetus?

Because the laws that parliaments make are the product of moral judgments society has made, this is essentially a moral problem. In Britain, we have decided that up to the end of 24 weeks of a pregnancy, and under certain conditions beyond that, the mother’s rights have primacy. This is not the case in Ireland where the law seeks to protect the rights to life of the unborn.

The judges who decided that doctors should be permitted to end life support could have rested their judgment on the medical evidence that there was no prospect of the child being born alive and therefore there was nothing to be gained by keeping the mother technically alive.

However, they went further and added that doing so would deprive the mother of dignity in death and subject her close family to “unimaginable distress”.

This adds another dimension to the law in cases like these – that the rights of pregnant women who have lost the ability to function autonomously as a living person should not be extinguished because the rights of the unborn.

The judgment seems both sensible and right. It would surely have been intolerable for this unfortunate woman to have been treated as an incubator.

It also gives guidance on what should be considered in future, and probably more morally complex, cases that will arise as medicine continues to advance.

Upwardly mobile it certainly is not

Thirty years ago, a young man sneaked out of a family Hogmanay party and made Britain’s first mobile phone call. Life has definitely changed since then, but for the better or the worse?

For those who have a compulsive need to talk to other people at any hour of the day, the mobile is probably mankind’s finest invention. But what gives such people the right to assume that the recipients of their verbosity want to hear from them?

Calls from attention-seeking blatherskites can be deterred by pretending that you are about to enter a very long tunnel, or to endure root canal treatment at the dentist, or by making crackling noises that suggest that reception is poor or the phone is on the blink.

But in many other instances, the chirping tone signalling an incoming call is about as welcome as “incoming” is when used in a military context.

How joyous it is to disrupt a meeting or a meal to answer a call only to discover is a computer-generated message advising on how to claim back payment protection insurance.

Still worse is the trill announcing a Gradgrind employer sending a disruptive missile which blows away expectations of an evening or weekend of quiet relaxation. Holidays, unless spent down a cave, are equally liable to dissolution at the touch of somebody’s fingers on your number.

The cursed things have even caused new psychiatric disorders: nomophobia, or the fear of being out of mobile phone contact, and its opposite, telephobia, the fear of what doom a call may bring.

Its 30th anniversary is, therefore, a cause for commiseration, not celebration. The world is not a happier place for its invention.