Updated: 06/02/17 : 06:32:04
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Councillors support mandatory maternal death inquests

Ireland’s failure to ensure mandatory inquests for maternal deaths is in breach of its international obligations, a leading human rights lawyer has said.

Dutch human rights researcher and lecturer Fleur van Leeuwen told a meeting at NUI Galway (NUIG) that the notion Ireland was the safest place to have a baby could be “seriously contested”.

The Irish Times reports that Ms van Leeuwen, who is an expert on the European Court of Human Rights, said that a number of human rights treaties obliged states to have “effective impartial investigations” into all unnatural deaths.

Yet, it was still up to a coroner to decide if an inquest should be held into the death of a woman in an Irish maternity hospital, she noted.

Ms van Leeuwen, who was speaking by Skype, cited World Health Organisation (WHO) research that between 88 and 98 per cent of all maternal deaths were “preventable”.

She was addressing a conference hosted on Friday night by the Elephant Collective,a campaign to ensure maternal death inquests are legislated for.

It includes nurses and midwives,individuals and groups who have been affected by or share concerns about maternal deaths in Ireland.

Both Sligo and Clare councillors submitted motions to their local authorities calling for mandatory inquests into maternal deaths.

A multimedia exhibition as part of the event commemorates the eight women for whom inquests were held after they died in Irish maternity services between 2008 and 2014, and a number of others whose names are not public.

All eight inquests into the deaths of Tania McCabe, Evelyn Flanagan, Jennifer Crean, Bimbo Onanuga, Dhara Kivlehan, Nora Hyland, Savita Halappanavar and Sally Rowlette, concluded with verdicts of medical misadventure.

However, the collective notes that clinical and care practices for all women about to give birth cannot improve unless there are inquests into all deaths.

It says that there were only three inquests held for at least 27 maternal deaths between 2011 and 2013.

It notes that data on “severe maternal morbidity” from hospitals is incomplete, with 18 of 19 hospitals submitting information.

Information provided to the collective by the Health Service Executive (HSE) shows it incurred 66 million euro in legal fees between 2007 and 2015, arising from maternity cases involving serious injury and death to either or both women and babies.

“Silence and Unaccountability”

The HSE paid out €282,883,052 for maternity cases through the State Claims Agency for the same eight-year period to 2015, it says.

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) School of Midwifery and Nursing sociologist Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless, who is a member of the collective, said that “silence and unaccountability” were hallmarks of the Irish maternity services, and referred to her “incandescent rage” over the lack of mandatory inquests.

In a discussion chaired by NUIG professor of midwifery Declan Devane, issues raised included “significant” understaffing of midwives and doctors, and the failure to make public or to delay reports into adverse incidents at maternity hospitals.

A “lack of empathy” in medical training, and the need for women to “change the conversation” were also issues raised.

The Elephant Collective is named after female elephants who are protected by the rest of the herd when giving birth.

The exhibition, including a knitted quilt made by over 100 contributors from across the island of Ireland, and a documentary entitled Picking up the Threads by Anne-Marie Greene, was opened on Friday by NUIG arts officer Fionnuala Gallagher. It continues at NUIG’s Institute of Lifecourse and Society until February 10th.