Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution reads: ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ We typically think of this as an Article designed to prohibit abortion, while forgetting that the text of the provision is not so limited. In Roche v. Roche the judges of the Supreme Court came to differing views about its application outside the abortion context. There are two approaches. We may focus on the language, which is sufficiently broad to regulate all pregnancies, and not only those which it is immediately sought to terminate by abortion (see the judgment of Murray CJ). Alternatively, we remember that there are specific reasons why this provision is in the Constitution in the first place – that it was sought to copper-fasten the existing statutory prohibition on abortion – and do not permit it to regulate all pregnancies (see the judgments of Denham J, Geoghegan J, and also the decisions in AG v. X and Baby O, cited by Hardiman J. in his Roche judgment). I think the latter is the better reading of the authorities, but the more expansive reading has tremendous force. For example in P.P. v. HSE, the Amendment was invoked by the High Court in a case in which it was sought to withdraw somatic care from a brain-dead pregnant woman. We know, also, from the June 2013 report into the case of Savita Halappanavar (and from the testimony of other women in the wake of that case) that the Amendment was considered binding in day-to-day practice in the management of inevitable miscarriage.
It is still not clear what the legal consequences of the more expansive reading have been for Irish maternity care, particularly in cases where there is disagreement between a woman and her doctors as to how her pregnancy should be managed. The National Consent Policy says:
The consent of a pregnant woman is required for all health and social care interventions. However, because of the constitutional provisions on the right to life of the “unborn”, there is significant legal uncertainty regarding the extent of a pregnant woman’s right to refuse treatment in circumstances in which the refusal would put the life of a viable foetus at serious risk. In such circumstances, legal advice should be sought as to whether an application to the High Court is necessary.
There has been very little guidance from the courts. I would instinctively argue that no 8th Amendment issue should arise in cases where a competent woman wishes to make a healthcare decision which her doctors feel is unwise, but which does not place the foetus’ life at risk. We tend to forget that the unborn has only one right – the right to be born alive. In Baby O, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that the right to life of the unborn encompassed a right to be born safely, or a right of access to medical treatment to ensure the child, once born survives infancy. Nevertheless, where the risk to the foetus is a risk to its future health, for example, it is unclear whether a woman’s decision could be overridden. There is conflicting unreported High Court authority on this point, in cases of HIV positive pregnant women, as reported by Katherine Wade in this earlier blog-post.
It is certainly true that a barrister acting on behalf of the HSE in seeking to compel a woman to submit to unwanted medical treatment will find it easier to make their case if they can suggest that the woman’s preferred course of treatment places the foetus’ life at risk. In getting to that point, cases are likely to turn on expert evidence. The level of risk required to invoke the right to life of the unborn may be quite low – for example in the 2010 case of Mother A, the relevant risk was of occurrence of uterine rupture during vaginal birth after C-section. The risk of death of the foetus due to uterine rupture in such births is generally accepted to be small, and could not be analogised to the certainty of death involved in an abortion, for example.
We do not have any direct reported judgments in cases where the court has been satisfied that the foetus’ life was placed at risk by a pregnant woman’s medical decision. However, we can guess at how they are decided. Following PP v. HSE, it can be said that the unborn has the right to all practicable medical intervention – even deeply invasive intervention – necessary to facilitate its being born alive. ‘Practicable’ here means treatment which is neither futile nor contrary to the ‘best interests’ of the unborn – treatment which is not at the outer reaches of medical best practice. It is difficult to say what points a pregnant woman could advance to argue that she should not be subjected to deeply invasive treatment to secure the right to life of the unborn, or that she should be allowed to choose less damaging treatment which poses a greater risk to the foetus’ life. The best evidence that we have of the kinds of arguments which might be made comes from newspaper reports in the Mother A case. A dispute arose between a pregnant woman and Waterford Regional Hospital when she refused to consent to a C-section, preferring a natural birth. The hospital argued that the woman’s pregnancy was so far along that her refusal was jeopardising the life of the unborn.The High Court had been asked to grant an order compelling the C-section, but the woman relented. In argument, Eileen Barrington SC for the hospital had argued that the relevant ‘clash of rights’ was between the woman’s right to refuse treatment and the right to life of the unborn. Assuming this case has not been misreported, the argument suggests that the woman has constitutional rights which must be taken into account in ‘maternal-foetal conflict’ cases, even if her own life is not placed at risk by the pregnancy. We can guess that a similar set of arguments was advanced in Ms. Y’s case in the High Court, when it was sought to subject her to an unwanted C-section (apparently one of the permissible modes of responding to a woman’s request for termination of a pregnancy under the PLDPA). It might be that the ‘Mother A’ argument is heartening because it may leave room to discuss and elaborate upon others of women’s rights than the basic right to life, but it is difficult to build on this observation without further information. ( P.P. v. HSE is of very little use on this point because, at the time the decision was made, P was already brain dead and, in the court’s view, had no remaining interests except in respect of ‘the feelings of grief and respect’ which others associated with her body.)
If the 8th Amendment were repealed tomorrow, what effect would it have on the maternity care system? Not every case in which a woman’s preferences are overridden by the HSE is strictly an 8th case, or a maternal-foetal conflict case. We often talk about the ‘chilling effects’ which the 8th has on women’s access to abortion – doctors imagine some inchoate risk of prosecution and so do not provide legally mandated abortion services. We could argue that there is a parallel ‘chilling effect’ in terms of women’s choices around childbirth – HSE personnel imagine a constitutional duty to restrain meaningful forms of maternal choice, lest the foetus be placed at even the smallest risk. This imagined constitutional duty is, of course, a product of vernacular and not direct judicial interpretation. But even if the 8th were removed, some worrying structures would remain in Irish healthcare law, which may owe some of their origins to the 8th but are supported by other independent rationales. I will outline them briefly.
The first concerns the regulation of home births, challenged in Teehan v. HSE. There are two main sites of regulation; a Memorandum of Understanding, or contract, between self-employed midwives and the HSE, and the Nurses and Midwives Act. The Memorandum provides that the HSE will not provide indemnity cover midwives who attend a home birth where the woman has previously had a C-section. The indemnity is a key site of control of independent midwives and women who prefer home birth, as the recent Philomena Canning case demonstrates. The Act provides in s.40 (not yet implemented) that a midwife who provides any service without insurance shall be subject to criminal penalties. In Teehan, O’Malley J. held that the HSE has extremely wide discretion in determining which maternity services to provide; as the party accepting the risk, it was for the HSE to decide which risks to insure. This is an interesting decision because O’Malley J. privileges institutional needs over individual choice without very much analysis. She dismisses the invocation of Article 8 ECHR via Ternovsky, characterising it as a decision about legal uncertainty, rather than as a more expansive decision about the mother’s entitlement to ‘a legal and institutional environment that enables her choice, except where other rights render necessary the restriction thereof. For the Court, the right to choice in matters of child delivery includes the legal certainty that the choice is lawful and not subject to sanctions, directly or indirectly’. She made no comment on s.40 of the Act because it was not yet in force – though arguably this is the kind of sanction which at least falls to be justified under Ternovsky.
The second is apparent in the negligence action in Hamilton v. HSE. In this case, Ms. Hamilton argued that a midwife had negligently broken her waters, leading to a very traumatic birth by emergency C-section, with long-lasting psychological consequences. The case, like all negligence cases, turns on judicial assessment of conflicting expert evidence. The court’s function is ‘merely to decide whether the course of treatment followed, on the evidence, complied with the careful conduct of a medical practitioner of like specialisation and skill to that professed by the defendant’, and not to determine whether best practice was followed. In part, that was why Ms. Hamilton’s action failed. However, there is an interesting section in which Ryan J. responds to the plaintiff’s contention that the midwife broke her waters without first seeking consent; whether Ms. Hamilton was assaulted. Paragraph 16 is instructive:
Mr Buckley challenged the plaintiff’s evidence that she was not told or warned about the ARM and that the midwife had simply carried out the procedure without preamble. Midwife Kelliher gave evidence that she had discussed the procedure with the plaintiff, she had with her the amnihook and had to get the plaintiff’s co-operation as to the position she was in for the procedure to be carried out. Mrs Hamilton would have seen the hook and would have known what was going to happen because of the sheet that was put under her in bed. Since, on the evidence, this was a routine procedure that Ms Kelliher was carrying out for the purpose of diagnosis to see if her fear of foetal distress was justified or not, it does seem strange that she would not have mentioned to the patient what she was going to do and have obtained her consent. The very fact that it was so routine suggests that the midwife would have done so. I am satisfied that the probability is that Midwife Kelliher obtained the plaintiff’s consent and informed her about the ARM that she was going to perform.
Given Ireland’s recent history of maternal deaths, there would be something to be said for forensic judicial attention to the extent to which labouring women’s voices are heard in maternity hospitals. AIMS’ recent research found that ‘while 67% of women [surveyed] agreed that basic consent had been sought during labour and birth, 52% of those surveyed did not receive information on potential implications to have or not have tests, procedures, treatments to assist with their decisions, and only 50% felt able to make an informed refusal during their labour and baby’s birth’. Consent requirements are an essential protection for women’s autonomy and must be taken seriously.
Both of these cases speak to a subordination of women’s autonomy to other concerns. The demands of insurance, and a reluctance to take the requirements of consent seriously, may provide a shield for defensive (some might say aggressive) maternal medicine long after the ‘de-constitutionalisation’ of pregnancy.
For further information see the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services (AIMS).