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Doc who told NI parents to put dead baby in picnic cooler bag quits over abortion interventions

Amnesty International says departure a "wake-up call" over Northern Ireland abortion laws

Published 14/09/2016

Dr Caroline Gannon. Pic BBC
Dr Caroline Gannon. Pic BBC

A senior Northern Ireland doctor has been forced to resign over abortion interventions, it has been reported.

Dr Caroline Gannon told the BBC the final straw was having to tell a couple they should use a picnic cooler bag to bring their baby's remains home to Northern Ireland after an abortion in England.

The paediatric pathologist resigned over interventions by attorney general John Larkin on abortion laws surrounding fatal foetal abnormality.

She investigated the deaths of babies including those in the womb or stillbirths and said recent interventions made her position "untenable".

"I think he (the Attorney General John Larkin) was the tipping point," she told the BBC.

"The workload we had was manageable, but then when these rulings came out - that was the tipping point and for me, professionally, I just felt I was acting unethically by taking part in this system where parents are denied a voice in what happened to their baby."

The doctor cited an example of the advice she gave to one couple whose baby was diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormality.

It is illegal in Northern Ireland for an abortion to be carried out on the grounds of such a diagnosis and the couple had to travel to England for a termination.

And the only means they had to transfer the child home were by in a cooler bag with ice packs.

They requested a post-mortem from the paediatric pathologist to understand the baby's diagnosis.

"They're on their own in a strange town, a strange country in a private clinic with no support," Dr Gannon said.

"If this had happened in a hospital in Northern Ireland midwives would be there, hospital processes would be in place they could sit with their baby and then somebody else would be responsible for bringing their baby down to the mortuary to ensure the post mortem is carried out."

Dr Gannon said she could not longer work within the Northern Ireland system which "denied couples information and choice".

The doctor's resignation leaves just one paediatric pathologist in Northern Ireland.

Amnesty International said the resignation said the resignation should be a "wake-up call" for abortion reform.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: "Dr Gannon’s resignation should serve as a wake-up call to the Northern Ireland Assembly which has, to date, turned its back on women in Northern Ireland who require access to abortion.

“Sadly, the horrific story told by Dr Gannon, of a couple with a fatal foetal diagnosis for their pregnancy having to travel to England and then return to Northern Ireland with the foetal remains in a cooler bag, is far from an isolated case.

“Amnesty is aware of a great many women and couples who have been forced to travel to England to access abortion and then transport the foetal remains back home for a proper burial or post mortem.

“Many medical professionals in Northern Ireland are faced with similar ethical dilemmas to Dr Gannon, having to work within a legal regime that flouts the rights of their pregnant patients and threatens both patient and medic with criminal prosecution.

“In 2015 the High Court found that Northern Ireland’s abortion law violates the human rights of women. It is inhuman and degrading to deny abortion to women whose pregnancy has a fatal foetal impairment or where it has been a result of rape or incest. It is a daily human rights abuse and it needs to end.”

More: 833 Northern Ireland women travelled to Britain for abortion in 2015, Department of Health report reveals

In response, attorney general John Larkin said: "Our law on abortion in cases of so-called  ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ - There is no agreed clinical definition of fatal  foetal abnormality - is currently under consideration by the Court of Appeal.

"The court has been asked to consider, among other things, an argument by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland that the protection of unborn children with disabilities should not be less than that for unborn children without such disabilities. That argument is based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

"While there is no barrier under our law to a post-mortem examination of the remains of babies who are aborted in England and Wales, a Northern Ireland Coroner has no jurisdiction to conduct an inquest where death occurs outside Northern Ireland and a Northern Ireland Coroner cannot, therefore, order a post mortem investigation in respect of any death occurring outside Northern Ireland.

"That territorial limitation on jurisdiction applies to any death, whether of a still-born child or of an adult travelling abroad."

He continued: "Post mortem examinations can play an important role in developing medical knowledge and in understanding present limitations on such knowledge.

"The UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the grounds of Disability [July 2013] reports evidence from Jay Jayahoman, consultant paediatric neurosurgeon, that of ‘of the 32 post mortems that he knew had been done on late stage terminations there have been ‘two where the diagnosis had been profoundly wrong'.

"In relation to still-births, our law recognises the still-born child as a deceased person. This has been confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland.

"It is for the Coroner to determine whether an inquest takes place and while the Coroner will take account of the wishes of parents, parents do not have a veto on whether or not an inquest should take place when a child dies. This is so  whether a child is stillborn or has died at any age after birth.”

Mr Larkin's office told the Belfast Telegraph, it had nothing further to add.

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