Belfast Telegraph

Baby stillborn at Altnagelvin Hospital 'was capable of being born alive', says Attorney General

An inquest should be held into the circumstances surrounding a stillborn baby because an actual death occurred, Northern Ireland's Attorney General argued today.

John Larkin QC told the Court of Appeal that the legal requirements for a coroner's inquiry were met as Axel Desmond was capable of being born alive.

Mr Larkin is seeking to overturn a ruling that senior coroner John Leckie was right to refuse his direction to examine the birth.

He set out how the child's mother described him as a "little person" and had images of him kicking in the womb, his heart beating.

Mr Larkin said: "Axel Desmond is Siobhan Desmond's son, but as far as the public interest is concerned he's also quite simply one of us."

The baby was stillborn at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry in October 2001 - one of 112 such cases that year across Northern Ireland.

His mother Siobhan went into labour two weeks after her due date.

She had planned to give birth at home in the city but following complications was admitted to hospital where Axel was born by emergency caesarean section.

Staff tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.

Although Mr Larkin directed an inquest be held into his death, the coroner refused last year on the basis that it went beyond his legal powers.

Lawyers for the Attorney General mounted a High Court challenge to his decision, arguing that the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959 contains no clear prohibition.

But counsel for the coroner claimed the legislation only covers death after a live birth.

Earlier this year a High Court judge dismissed the Attorney General's case after setting out the potential ramifications in other areas such as abortion, stem cell research, IVF and cloning.

Mr Larkin appeared today in person as part of an appeal against that verdict.

Opening his case before Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with Lord Justices Girvan and Coghlin, he said: "Our first and primary submission is that applying the known facts of Axel Desmond is that he's a dead body, he died and he's a deceased person."

The Attorney General stressed his focus was on the type of child capable of being born alive.

Such deaths are not limited to cases where the baby is "stabbed through his mother's abdomen", he said.

A "myriad" of other types of death in the womb can occur, including lack of care or disease, the court heard.

Mr Larkin contended: "The verb to die isn't confined to where the child is deliberately killed."

He concluded: "Is Axel now a body, a deceased person, and can the Attorney General conclude it's (desirable) to hold an inquest into Axel's death?

"We submit there should be an affirmative answer to both those questions."

Legal arguments centred on a point in the legislation said to link "child destruction" with instances of a deceased person.

Sir Declan pressed counsel for the coroner, Nicolas Hanna QC, on why all "viable" foetuses should not be covered.

Mr Hanna contended that child destruction cases were grouped along with murders, manslaughters and infanticides, but that their inclusion may have been a mistake.

"I could live with the alternative that the intention was to include child destruction, but not to include all viable foetuses who have died as a result of stillbirth."

Ms Desmond's barrister, Monye Anyadike-Danes, argued that her client had the same entitlement as the parent of a baby who dies minutes after birth.

She said: "It's part of her rights as a mother to find out why her child didn't didn't live beyond birth."

Following all submissions judgment in the appeal was reserved.

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