Ireland's High Court has ruled that doctors can withdraw life support for a clinically dead pregnant woman, in the latest case to trigger heated debate on the country's stringent abortion laws.

The High Court took the decision on Friday after it found that the 18-week foetus would not survive because of the deteriorating state of the woman's body, which meant that continuing life support was futile.

"While the unborn child is not yet in distress, it is facing into a 'perfect storm' from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive. It has nothing but distress and death in prospect," the court said in its ruling.

A woman isn't simply an incubator.

Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin

The woman, who has not been named to protect her privacy, was 14 weeks pregnant when declared clinically dead on December 3, after damaging her head in a serious fall. 

Despite requests from the woman's family for her to be allowed to die, doctors continued life support as the Irish constitution says a woman and her unborn child have an equal right to life.

Doctors also cited fears they could be sued for negligence or even be charged with murder for depriving her unborn foetus of life support.

The case reignited debate in majority Catholic Ireland over the rights of unborn children, prompting the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin to speak out on the issue.

"From the point of view of Catholic teaching in general medical ethics, there is no obligation to use extraordinary means to maintain a life," Martin told Newstalk radio. "A woman isn't simply an incubator."

In a statement following the judgement, the Irish health service welcomed the ruling and expressed "deepest sympathy to the family... in the tragic and extremely difficult situation they have found themselves in."

Irish doctors have appealed for decades for clearer guidelines on when they may terminate a pregnancy. Irish law permits this only when deemed necessary to save the woman's life.

Ireland has the strictest abortion ban in Europe. An estimated 4,000 Irish women travel each year for abortions in
neighbouring England.

Source: Agencies