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Case tests abortion law in Ireland

Fear, confusion as a court decided the fate of a pregnant woman on life-support.

DUBLIN - A brain-dead pregnant woman was taken off life support Friday after a court ruled that her 18-week-old fetus was doomed to die - a case that exposed fear and confusion among doctors over how to apply Ireland's strict ban on abortion in an age of medical innovation.

The three-judge Dublin High Court said that all artificial support for the woman should end more than three weeks after she was declared clinically dead. Her relatives gathered at a hospital in the Irish Midlands to bid farewell to the unidentified woman, who was in her late 20s and had two children.

Lethal environment

In their 29-page ruling, the judges accepted testimony from seven doctors who said the fetus couldn't survive for the extra two months of development needed to be delivered safely. The doctors detailed how the woman's body was becoming a lethal environment rife with infections, fungal growths, fever, and high blood pressure.

The nation's Supreme Court was put on standby for an appeal, given the constitutional questions at stake. But lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus said they accepted the ruling from the country's second-highest court.

Ireland has the strictest abortion ban in Europe, a reflection of the country's heavily Roman Catholic population. But Dublin's archbishop had suggested before the decision that he would have no objection to removing life support.

The woman suffered irreversible brain death Dec. 3, four days after sustaining a head injury in a fall. She had already been hospitalized after doctors found a cyst in her brain.

Family pleas refused

Doctors refused family pleas to turn off a half-dozen machines that regulated oxygen, blood flow, nutrition, and waste collection, citing fears they could be sued for negligence or even face murder charges if they cut life-sustaining support for the fetus.

The judges said the fetus faced "a 'perfect storm' from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive. It has nothing but distress and death in prospect." The Catholic Church questioned why secular authorities had not established clear guidelines for such cases.

"There is no obligation to use extraordinary means to maintain a life. That applies both to the woman and to the child," Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said before Friday's ruling The judges did leave open the possibility that future cases might be handled differently should the fetus be significantly closer to delivery age.