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Ethicists: Texas Life Support Law 'Unconstitutional'; NYT Columnist Blasts 'Cruel' Policy

January 21, 2014 — Although a Texas law barring hospitals from ending life-sustaining treatment for pregnant patients "is almost certainly unconstitutional," it does not apply to a controversial case in which a pregnant woman is being kept on life support against her and her family's wishes, according to a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Thaddeus Pope, director of the Health Law Institute at Hamline University School of Law.

They explain that the woman, Marlise Munoz, was clinically determined to have "suffered brain death, 'irreversible cessation of all spontaneous brain function.'" However, the hospital claims the state law prevents it from granting her family's request to withdraw life support, in compliance with Munoz's end-of-life wishes.

Caplan and Pope argue that the Texas "law requires only that a living pregnant woman be kept alive," adding that, "like similar laws in other states, [it] is almost always applied when the woman is incapacitated and terminally or irreversibly ill." In Munoz's case, life "support is not, and cannot be, 'life-sustaining,'" because she is dead.

Munoz's case "provides an opportunity to overturn a bad law," they continue, noting that her husband has filed a lawsuit against the hospital.

"The only question in Fort Worth is who knows best what to do when a body is being used as an incubator for a nonviable and possibly damaged fetus: a woman and her family or the Legislature of Texas? The answer, in a state whose laws often stress the need to respect personal liberty, ought to be clear," Caplan and Pope conclude (Caplan/Pope, Los Angeles Times, 1/16).

Hospital's Treatment of Munoz Family is 'Cruel,' Columnist Writes

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues that "regardless of the law and whether it applies to [Munoz's] case, the treatment of her and her family isn't just or right, for many reasons."

Bruni describes the hospital's treatment of the family as "[c]ruel," noting that the family members are the ones who will have to deal with the lasting effects of the hospital's decisions. For example, "if a baby is born with severe and enduring ailments, Marlise's husband and parents will presumably inherit the effort to give that child a decent quality of life, which is a concept that goes strangely missing in too many disputes over the unborn," he writes.

"While Texas, like other states, has been trying to make it harder and harder to obtain abortions, it cannot ultimately prevent a woman who is still able to speak for herself from ending a pregnancy in the early stages," he continues, asking, "How, then, can it prevent a family who speaks legitimately for her from taking that same step?" (Bruni, New York Times, 1/18).