Gynaecologist cleared of neglect after baby born with Down syndrome
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Pretoria - For eight years, a Joburg gynaecologist faced a multimillion-rand claim after one of his patients gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome.
However, the now retired Dr Piet Engelbrecht will be able to put all that behind him.
The parents of the girl, who will turn 10 in November, persisted with a string of court applications to try to obtain damages from the specialist.
The mother, who is not identified in order to protect the identity of the child, said that if she had known she was carrying a baby with Down syndrome, she would have opted for an abortion.
She said Engelbrecht was negligent for not establishing, during her pregnancy, that her child would have the disability. She and her husband blamed the doctor for the burden they had to carry in raising their daughter, as well as all the additional costs involved in her care. The parents failed in their first attempt to hold the gynaecologist liable in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
The Roodepoort couple, however, appealed the judgment, and three judges came to the same conclusion– Engelbrecht was not at fault.
Unhappy with the verdict, the couple turned to the Supreme Court of Appeal in a bid to yet again appeal. That court has informed the parents that it was not willing to entertain the appeal and that it was the end of the matter.
The 69-year-old gynaecologist, who had practised for 30 years, can finally find peace. The child was born in 2011. Since then, the parents remained adamant that they were entitled to be compensated for having to raise and maintain their daughter.
Their argument was that as the child had Down syndrome, it was “not normal” and they would have to care for her into adulthood. The parents said that if the specialist had done all the necessary tests during the pregnancy and explained their options, they would have aborted the foetus.
The couple earlier told the court that they had been in shock after the birth, when they were told that the child had Down syndrome.
They placed the blame squarely on the gynaecologist, whom they said was negligent for failing to detect, during prenatal screening, that the then 28-year-old mother was in fact carrying a baby with Down syndrome.
The couple felt they were not given adequate information during the pregnancy regarding genetic screening for Down syndrome. They also complained that the doctor did not do the proper tests to detect any abnormality with the foetus.
In her judgment, Judge Vivian Tlhapi said there was always a possibility of a woman giving birth to a child with an irreversible congenital or genetic disorder. She could not fault Engelbrecht’s conduct.
The mother testified that she went to the specialist in April 2011. He did an ultrasound and all seemed well.
She returned the following month when the specialist said he would, among other things, check for Down syndrome by doing a scan and measuring the thickness of the baby's neck.
But that could not be done on that occasion as the baby was not lying in the correct position. The mother was told to return a few days later, as this was the window period within which he could detect the measurement.
This test could also not be done the second time as the baby was again lying in the wrong position.
Blood tests were done the following month, but the mother said the results were not discussed with her. The doctor, on the other hand, said he did discuss the results, which showed a low risk for Down syndrome.
The mother said she knew about the risks of the syndrome, but “you never realised it could happen to you”.