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Legislative Changes Proposed in Wake of Texas Life-Support Case

January 29, 2014 — Both Republicans and Democrats in the Texas Legislature want to clarify a state law on end-of-life care after a hospital sparked a national debate by refusing to end life support for a brain-dead pregnant woman, WFAA reports (Zakalik, WFAA, 1/27).

On Friday, a state district judge ordered John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, to remove life support for the woman, Marlise Muñoz, ruling that a state statute did not apply to her because she was brain dead and, therefore, legally dead.

Muñoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she was taken to the hospital after collapsing on Nov. 26, apparently from a blood clot in her lungs. The family requested that the hospital remove life support, per Muñoz's end-of-life wishes. Hospital officials refused to comply, citing a state law that bars withdrawing "life-sustaining treatment" from a pregnant patient. Muñoz's husband then filed a lawsuit against the hospital. According to the family's lawyers, the fetus had severely deformed lower extremities, fluid buildup inside the skull and a potential heart problem. The hospital later confirmed that the fetus was non-viable.

In compliance with the judge's order, the hospital ended life support for Muñoz around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/27).

Calls for Legislative Changes

Republicans and Democrats are both calling for changes to the law, but they disagree on what they should be.

State Rep. Matt Krause (R) said the law should be altered to add more protections for fetuses. He suggested that a guardian be appointed in such cases to protect the interests of the fetus.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D) said the law's "language is plain, but not clear." He said the "very simple fix" is to add a line to the measure nullifying it if a woman is declared dead, adding that he plans to propose such legislation (WFAA, 1/27).

Lt. Gov. Candidates Comment

Meanwhile, during a televised debate on Monday, four Republican candidates for Texas lieutenant governor pledged they would clarify the law if elected. All four said the judge erred in ordering the hospital to end life support.

Todd Staples, a candidate and current state agriculture commissioner, said, "It is an extremely difficult set of circumstances. But we need to make certain that as a society, we are protecting life."

Staples' comments were echoed by the other candidates, including Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Sen. Dan Patrick (Weber, AP/Sacramento Bee, 1/27).