Irish widowers highlight need for mandatory inquests into maternal deaths across EU

Between 2007 and 2021, 13 inquests into maternal deaths were held in the State, campaign group says

Two men whose wives died in Irish hospitals following childbirth will travel to Brussels on Tuesday to highlight the need for mandatory inquests in the case of all maternal deaths across the EU.

Seán Rowlette from Dromore West, Co Sligo, whose wife Sally (36) died at Sligo University Hospital in February 2013 after the birth of her fourth child, said inquests are important both “to find out what happened and to prevent it happening in the future”.

Mr Rowlette said he had to fight for 15 months for an inquest into his wife’s death before a jury returned a unanimous verdict of medical misadventure – two months after a similar verdict had been returned in the case of Dhara Kivlehan from Co Leitrim. She died in Belfast in 2010, eight days after giving birth in the Sligo hospital. Both women suffered from HELLP syndrome, a severe form of pre-eclampsia.

Since the introduction of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019, inquests are automatically held in this country if a woman dies in childbirth.


Mr Rowlette will travel to Brussels with Ayaz Hassan whose 28-year-old wife Nayyab Tariq died at Mayo University Hospital in March 2020 after giving birth to her first child.

In September 2021 a coroner returned a verdict of medical misadventure in her case.

Both men will accompany members of the Elephant Collective, a group of academics, midwives, campaigners and bereaved families who campaigned for a change in the law here. Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless a sociologist and joint coordinator of the Elephant Collective said that between 2007 and 2021, 13 inquests on maternal deaths had been held in this country giving rise to 13 verdicts of medical misadventure including one which had been contested in the High Court.

“This is a staggering indictment of Ireland’s maternity services,” said Dr Murphy-Lawless who is a research fellow at the Centre for Health Evaluation at the University of Galway.

She paid tribute to Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Frances Fitzgerald who played key roles in the long campaign to have mandatory inquests into maternal deaths enshrined in Irish law and who will meet the group on Tuesday.

Dr Murphy-Lawless said it was now vital that “we follow through and ensure that coroners use section 24 of the Coroners (Amendment) Act to gain full disclosure of all documents from hospitals and that this be done publicly”.

Mr Rowlette said he had been told by one woman that reading about his wife’s inquest had probably saved her life as she realised she was suffering from HELLP syndrome.

“The plan is to share our story over there and to try and bring the same law into Europe as we have here now,” he said. “A lot of us have family members in Europe and you would like to think they would be safe there.”

Mr Rowlette said he felt he owed it to his wife to continue fighting for safer maternal health services as the 10th anniversary of her death approaches.

“If I had to do it all over again I think I would have screamed my head off. I think I was too quiet that night. I just thought they knew what they were doing. I do regret not shouting a bit louder.”

He said he and his four children had their “ups and downs” but were managing.

“It is hard to believe that it is going to be 10 years on the 5th [of] February,” he said.

“I do believe things have improved big time in the last few years. I think lessons have been learned and staff are more hands on.”

Dr Fleur van Leeuwen, legal adviser to the Elephant Collective said she was not aware of any other EU country which had legislation akin to the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019.

“Other European countries may have a provision or clause in some domestic law that could be interpreted as including an obligation to have investigations into cases of maternal death, or could be so employed, but it is not made specific,” said Dr van Leeuwen.

“The 2019 law on mandatory inquests for all maternal deaths means we fulfil our obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights where in the wake of unexpected loss of life, families are ensured of an effective, entirely independent, and swift investigation carried out in public with the involvement of next of kin.

“This is what an inquest does at its best.”

She pointed out many EU countries do not have inquests, having civil law systems “which means this investigation into the cause of death will be conducted by a different organ of the state”.

Dr Murphy-Lawless said women of colour were being disproportionately affected both in Ireland and across Europe. She said six of the 13 inquests into maternal deaths here from 2007 to 2012 in Ireland involved women of colour with two more pending.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland