The case of Michelle Harte
Recently we saw Billy Kelleher, the Fianna Fáil TD, claim that if the people did not repeal the 8th, we were telling Irish women diagnosed with cervical cancer while pregnant that they had to go to England, terminate the pregnancy, and then come back to Ireland to get the cancer treatment they needed.
This is wholly untrue, misleading, and a shameful distortion of the facts by Mr Kelleher. Pregnant women with cancer are entitled to any treatment they need to save their life, and women avail of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery while pregnant in Ireland under the 8th amendment. They can have scans and medical treatment in the same way as women who are not pregnant, and, while some woman seek to postpone treatment, that is a choice they make.
Some abortion campaigners, making similar claims to Mr Kelleher, have referenced the case of Michelle Harte who was diagnosed with cancer and then found herself unexpectedly pregnant. Media reports claimed that Ms Harte was forced to travel abroad to have an abortion so that she could avail of treatment for cancer in Ireland.
So what really happened?
Well firstly, let’s look at what the Medical Council’s Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners says. Irish law, as it stands now and as it stood when Ms Harte’s case arose in 2010, allows for medical intervention to save the life of the mother even if doing so may cost the life of the unborn child.
The Guidleines clearly state: In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby.
They further state that any risk to the mother’s life need not be immediate or imminent in order for a doctor to intervene.
So, if it is legal for a doctor to provide treatment even if that treatment will lead to the death of the unborn child, what exactly happened in Ms Harte’s case?
Michelle Harte had been fighting cancer for years and was being treated in Cork University Hospital, when she discovered she was pregnant. She was due to start a round of immunotherapy which was being administered through a clinical trial – a trial organised by a drug company designed to test new drugs in the treatment of cancer. She was refused access to this trial, by those running the trial, as one of the conditions the drug company had placed on admittance to the trial was that they would not include pregnant women.
So Ms Harte sought an abortion, not so that she could be treated for cancer by the hospital, but so that she could have access to the drug trial – because of the rules set by the drug company.
This decision was only confined to the drug trial, because of the rules of the drug company, there was no question that Ms Harte would be denied medical treatment for cancer at the hospital otherwise.
The media reporting around the case was deliberately misleading – with many articles wrongly claiming that Ms Harte was denied scans and cancer treatment because she was pregnant. The media pressure should have been brought to bear on the drug company for refusing to admit Ms Harte, but they choose instead to incorrectly claim that the 8th amendment prevents women from receiving cancer treatment.
Now Billy Kelleher is claiming the same in the Dáil. This is untrue, it is misleading and it is shameful. A leading Fianna Fáil spokesman is using fear and misinformation in order to push abortion.