Texas Abortion Law Keeps Life Support Mother Alive

A tragic story in Texas provides a dramatic intersection of law and medical ethics, leaving a family in mourning unable to comply with a dying loved one’s end of life wishes.  On November 26th of last year, 33-year-old Marlise Munoz suffered a pulmonary embolism, rendering her brain dead and effectively ending her life.  Ms. Munoz, who was placed on life support, has an advanced directive end-of-life plan that requests her family terminate her life in this particular circumstance.  Complications arose when doctors determined that Ms. Munoz was 14-weeks pregnant when she was declared brain dead, and, in accordance with Texas law, prevented the Munoz family from taking action.

Texas Law Keeps Mother on Life Support

Texas abortion law forbids doctors and hospitals from removing a pregnant woman from “life-sustaining treatment,” regardless of how far along the pregnancy is at the time she is placed under medical care.  Hospital officials, following the law, have kept Ms. Munoz’s body alive, despite her family’s requests to honor the young woman’s end of life requests against sustained life support. 

The hospital has informed the family that it will wait until the pregnancy has reached 22 – 24 weeks to determine what effect, if any, Ms. Munoz’s embolism, which caused her to go without air for close to an hour, had on the developing fetus.  Until that stage, it appears the Munoz family will be unable to influence the decision without pursuing legal action.

Critics of Texas Law Support Family’s End of Life Plan

Although the family of Marlise Munoz has declined legal action challenging Texas’ abortion law, or the hospital’s interpretation of it, a number of legal scholars and theorists have questioned the doctor’s insistence that Ms. Munoz remain on life support.  Primarily, the argument in favor of honoring Ms. Munoz’s end of life plan focuses on the language “life-sustaining treatment” and the nature of Ms. Munoz’s condition.  Some have argued that when a patient is brain dead, then her life is effectively over – and thus cannot be sustained.  Since no treatment can be life-sustaining for a brain dead patient, there is an argument to be made that the hospital improperly interpreted the Texas law.  The hospital has not officially diagnosed Ms. Munoz as brain dead, but her condition is beyond hope and thus “life-sustaining” treatment may not adequately describe the life-support she is receiving.

Other groups have argued that at 14 weeks the State of Texas could not force parents who choose to abort keep the fetus, and therefore Texas law should not be allowed to overrule the family wishes in this case.  At 22 – 24 weeks, the time when doctors will make a decision about whether or not to carry the baby to term, Texas abortion law would preclude terminating the fetus, which could make the family powerless throughout the entire duration of the pregnancy. 

Health of Life Support Fetus is Unknown

Underlying, and further complicating, the issue is the uncertainty about the health of Ms. Munoz’s fetus, both now and throughout the course of the pregnancy.  It is not unheard of for terminally ill mothers, or mothers on life support respirators, to carry a baby to term, however, it is uncommon that a family is forced to keep a fetus without knowing whether or not it will result in a healthy infant.  Currently, all the family knows is that there is a heartbeat, leaving husband Erick Munoz in a state of limbo between his wife’s tragic condition and the unknown future of the fetus.

The focus on Texas’ law forcing the hospital to keep Ms. Munoz alive has predictably resulted in strong opinions on both sides of the issue.  The competing rights asserted by supporters of the unborn fetus and the family of Marlize Munoz are mutually exclusive, and the end result is an ethical conflict spanning the medical and legal professions.  With the final say of Texas law currently unchallenged by the Munoz family, it appears Marlize’s fetus will be carried to at least 22 – 24 weeks before the hospital will make a decision regarding the rest of the pregnancy.

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