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Hospital Removes Brain Dead Woman From Life Support After Court Order

January 27, 2014 — A Texas hospital has removed a brain dead pregnant woman from life support after a judge ruled that it was misapplying a state law that bars withdrawing "life-sustaining treatment" from a pregnant patient, the New York Times reports (Fernandez, New York Times, 1/26).

Case Background

The woman, Marlise Muñoz, was 14 weeks pregnant when she was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, after collapsing on Nov. 26, apparently from a blood clot in her lungs. According to Muñoz's parents, officials at the hospital told the family that Muñoz was brain dead. The Muñoz family prepared to ask that the hospital remove life support, per her end-of-life wishes, but hospital officials said they would not comply because of the state law.

Muñoz's husband then filed a lawsuit against the hospital arguing that the law does not apply to Muñoz because she is legally dead and, thus, not considered a "pregnant patient" under the law's parameters.

The husband's lawyers said Muñoz's medical records indicated that the fetus, estimated at 22 weeks of gestation last week, had fluid buildup inside the skull and a potential heart problem. They also said the fetus' lower extremities were "deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined" (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/24).

Judge's Decision

A state district judge ruled on Friday the statute does not apply to Muñoz because she is brain dead and, therefore, legally dead.

The judge ordered the hospital to remove Muñoz from life support by 5 p.m. on Monday. The hospital on Sunday decided not to appeal the ruling and ended life support around 11:30 a.m. that day.

Comments

The hospital in court papers had acknowledged that the fetus was not viable, but it stood by its handling of the case in a statement after the court order (New York Times, 1/26).

"The past eight weeks have been difficult for the Muñoz family, the caregivers and the entire Tarrant County community, which found itself involved in a sad situation," the statement said, adding, "JPS has said its role was not to make nor contest law, but to follow it" (Rice, Modern Healthcare, 1/26).

Attorneys Heather King and Jessica Hall Janicek, representing the women's family, said the family would "now proceed with the somber task of laying ... Muñoz's body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered" (New York Times, 1/26).

Meanwhile, Tom Mayo, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who helped write the law, said he believed the hospital had misapplied it. He predicted that changes to the law would be discussed prior to the state Legislature's return next year, but noted, "I'm not persuaded that the statute really needs to be fixed" (Pruet, Reuters, 1/26).

Politico Opinion Piece: Case Shows Extremism of 'Pro-Life' Movement

In a Politico opinion piece, author and activist Robin Marty argues that the Muñoz case highlights "the problem" of "the anti-abortion activist movement embracing the stance of 'pro-life from conception to natural death,'" which "creates a situation where science deviates from their politics and faith."

These activists "believe that a heartbeat equals life," but "[b]rain death -- which is considered true, legal death by broad medical consensus and the laws of all 50 states -- throws a monkey wrench into their simple, straightforward definition," Marty argues (Marty, Politico, 1/26).