January 13, 2014

A Woman’s Life Has Ended, but Hospital Insists on Life Support for Fetus Against Family’s Wishes

Right now in Fort Worth, Texas, 33-year-old Marlise Munoz lies in a hospital bed, brain dead after experiencing a blood clot in her lungs. Munoz’s family has been prohibited from honoring her wishes to be removed from life support.

Why? Munoz is pregnant.

When her clot happened, Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant; she’s now 20 weeks pregnant. Texas is one of 12 states in which a pregnancy at any stage invalidates a woman’s advance directive for her end-of-life care. The other states are Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

According to the Center for Women Policy Studies, additional states can invalidate a pregnant woman’s wishes and force her to be kept on life support if it’s “probable” that the fetus will develop to the point of live birth. A few more states have similar rules but limit them to women whose fetuses are already viable.

The New York Times notes that some experts in medical ethics have said they believe the hospital is misinterpreting Texas state law prohibiting medical officials from cutting off life support to a pregnant patient. At this point, Munoz’s fetus is not viable outside of her uterus, and it’s unclear whether it was compromised by the amount of time she went without medical attention following her collapse or the subsequent deterioration of her body: 

Mrs. Munoz’s parents and her husband, Erick Munoz, 26, remain in limbo, even as they and other relatives help care for the Munozes’ 15-month-old son, Mateo. Mr. Munoz has returned to his job as a firefighter but continues to sit by his wife’s side at the hospital. She had been due to give birth in mid-May, but the hospital’s plans for the fetus — as well as its health and viability — remain unknown. Mr. Machado [Marlie Munoz's father] said he had been told by the hospital’s medical team that his daughter might have gone an hour or longer without breathing before her husband woke and discovered her, a situation he believes has seriously impaired the fetus. “We know there’s a heartbeat, but that’s all we know,” he said.

Mrs. Machado said the doctors had told her that they would make a decision about what to do with the fetus as it reached 22 to 24 weeks, and that they had discussed whether her daughter could carry the baby to full term to allow for a cesarean-section delivery. “That’s very frustrating for me, especially when we have no input in the decision-making process,” Mr. Machado added. “They’re prolonging our agony.”

Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women has commented:

What is quite stunning about these statutes for women is that they don’t even take into account a woman’s pain. A woman could be in excruciating pain and near death’s door and they still would force her to suffer. These are extraordinary laws creating separate unequal status for pregnant women in which they lose control of medical decision making, the right to bodily integrity and right to be free of excruciating pain.

Not being allowed to die in peace, or watching a family member be denied their wishes, is the stuff of nightmares. This extreme situation, however, isn’t the only one in which pregnant women’s freedoms have been restricted.

In October, there was some media coverage of Alicia Beltran’s case. Beltran had beaten a drug addiction and was 14 weeks pregnant when her doctor and a social worker tried to force her to take an anti-addiction drug and took her to court when she refused.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented hundreds of U.S. cases of pregnant women who were subjected to or threatened with incarceration, detention, or forced medical or other interventions that the state decided were in the best interest of the fetus — not the woman.

A petition has been launched asking Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to leave this decision to Marlise Munoz’s family. To learn more about “pregnancy exclusion laws,” read “Marlise Munoz Case Shines Light on Dehumanizing ‘Pregnancy Exclusion’ Laws,” by Lynn Paltrow and Katherine Taylor.


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