Surgeons 'must practise within law at all times'

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The Independent Online
For three years Barbara Whiten's male baby has been kept in a morgue while lawyers argued whether the gynaecologist who aborted the 11-week old foetus during an operation unlawfully procured a miscarriage, writes Nicole Veash.

The case against Reginald Dixon was the first criminal prosecution of a surgeon for carrying out an abortion without a woman's consent. He was charged under a 19th-century law against back-street abortion.

After the not guilty verdict, a watchdog group, the Hysterectomy Legal Fighting Fund, called for an inquiry into King's Mill hospital, Sutton- in- Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, where Mrs Whiten's routine hysterectomy went wrong. Two other women have complained about their gynaecological treatment there, it claimed.

In Mrs Whiten's case the decision to carry out the abortion was taken in minutes while she was anaesthetised and on the operating table. Mr Dixon tried to contact her husband but when this proved impossible he relied on medical notes.

Mrs Whiten told the court she had wanted a baby.

Mr Dixon qualified as a doctor at London University in 1961 and became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1972. Married with two grown up sons, he is respected by staff and patients, colleagues say.

Mrs Whiten, who lives with her second husband and two teenage stepsons, was referred with painful gynaecological problems going back two years. Endometriosis was diagnosed and she was told her chances of becoming pregnant would progressively decline.

She was also found to be suffering from depression and prescribed anti- depressants. Soon afterwards her father died and she received psychiatric support. It was at this point that she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on 16 of her tablets. The court was told it was the second time she had tried to take her life by taking an overdose.

It was claimed she told nurses booking her in for her hysterectomy that she had not had a period since the previous Christmas, but that no tests were done to see if this was because she was pregnant.

The case has divided surgeons and women's groups.

A spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: "Members . . . must practise within the law at all times. In extreme situations where a surgeon has to make a difficult decision during surgery, they must consider what are the best options available to the patient, this includes stopping the operation to allow time for discussion."

Beverley Beech, chair of the Association for Improvement in the Maternity Services, said all patients have the absolute right to determine what will be done to them and should be wary of signing blanket consent forms. "This is just not acceptable, you should only sign consent forms for exactly what operation has been agreed for," she said.

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