Lawmakers in Louisiana are currently advancing a proposal that would require the state to keep incapacitated pregnant women on life support, even if their family members object.
Louisiana already has a state law mandating that, in cases when doctors are trying to decide how to approach life-sustaining procedures, “any ambiguity shall be interpreted to preserve human life.” And now, spurred by a recent controversy in Texas in which a brain-dead pregnant woman’s family sued to take her off life support, some members of the legislature want to add specific language requiring doctors to keep women alive as their pregnancies advance.
“We have a responsibility to that unborn child, to give that unborn child a chance,” Rep. Austin Badon (D) told a legislative committee this week, explaining that his bill will protect the sanctity of life.
But the issue of end-of-life care is not always so clear cut. The famous cases involving life support, like the battle over Terri Schiavo, typically involve people in vegetative states. But the Texas case actually centered on a different medical condition, when a woman named Marlise Machado Muñoz was pronounced brain dead at about 14 weeks of pregnancy. Brain death is one of the two medical definitions of death. Individuals in this state have no activity in their brain stem, are not able to breathe on their own, and are considered to be deceased — and it’s medically unethical to perform health services on a dead body. So most medical professionals agreed that it was inappropriate to keep Machado Muñoz hooked up to life support.
There have been some rare cases of brain-dead women giving birth to healthy babies. But it’s very dependent on how far along the pregnancy was when the woman became incapacitated, and whether the fetus was deprived of oxygen in the womb. In the Texas case, after Machado Muñoz was forced to remain on life support for two months, it turned out that her pregnancy was not viable.
Problematically, pregnancy is increasingly becoming a medical condition that invalidates women’s rights. In 12 states, women’s end-of-life wishes are disregarded if they enter a comatose state while they’re pregnant. In religious hospitals, women are sometimes unable to receive the emergency medical care they need if they’re pregnant, since hospital staff is too worried about doing anything that could be construed as an abortion. And across the country, women who become pregnant make themselves more vulnerable for criminal charges for child endangerment if they use illicit drugs, even when there’s no evidence that drug use actually impacted their fetus.
Julie Schwam Harris, a New Orleans resident who testified against Badon’s bill on Wednesday, pointed out that it could fit into this trend and relegate pregnant women to a second-class legal status. “This bill wrongly, in my opinion, puts government between a woman and her family, a woman and her doctor and a woman and her faith,” Harris said.