Marlise Muñoz, a paramedic from Texas, lost consciousness right before Thanksgiving. Doctors don’t know exactly what happened, but they suspect that a blood clot to her lungs may have cut off her oxygen supply. By the time her husband got her to a hospital, she had gone too long without oxygen. Muñoz was pronounced brain dead.
Muñoz’s husband, Erick, also works as a paramedic. The couple frequently came into contact with emergency situations, and Muñoz tragically lost her own brother several years ago to a serious accident. Erick Muñoz says they had several conversation about end-of-life care, and his wife always told him she never wanted to be kept alive by a machine.
But thanks to Texas law, Muñoz’s husband is not currently able to fulfill her wishes. Muñoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she lost consciousness, and that pregnancy is now about 19 weeks along. Texas does not permit life-sustaining procedures to be withheld or withdrawn from a pregnant woman, even if she has a living will that stipulates she doesn’t want to remain on life support, so doctors are keeping Muñoz hooked up to a ventilator.
According to a 2012 report from the Center for Women Policy Studies, Texas is one of 12 states that automatically invalidate women’s end-of-life wishes if she is pregnant. Those state laws ensure that “regardless of the progression of the pregnancy, a woman must remain on life-sustaining treatment until she gives birth.” The hospital that is providing care to Muñoz has declined to confirm that she’s been pronounced brain dead, saying only that she’s “pregnant and in serious condition” and their employees are fulfilling their legal obligations. “This is not a difficult decision for us. We are following the law,” a spokesperson told the Associated Press.
The Muñoz family wants that law to be changed, pointing out that it will force them to leave Marlise on life support until mid-May. They believe she is dead, and they say it’s emotionally painful to prolong the process of saying goodbye. “This isn’t about pro-life or pro-choice,” Muñoz’s father, Ernest Machado, explained in a tearful interview with Dallas News on Friday. “We want to say goodbye. We want to let them rest.”
Because the pregnancy is still relatively early on, it’s not yet clear whether the fetus is developing normally. By 24 weeks, the family may know more about its viability. It’s possible that later tests will reveal it also suffered from a lack of oxygen while Muñoz was unconscious — and that’s what Muñoz’s family fears. “That poor fetus had the same lack of oxygen, the same electric shocks, the same chemicals that got her heart going again. For all we know, it’s in the same condition that Marlise is in,” Machado told Dallas News.
Muñoz’s case is in stark contrast to another recent case involving end-of-life care. In California, the family of 13-year-old Jahi McMath has been fighting to keep her on life support despite the fact that five doctors and a court have pronounced her brain dead with virtually no hope of revival. McMath’s mother continues to hold out hope that her daughter may improve, and the family is attempting to transport her body to a different hospital that will agree to keep her on life support.
Life support is hardly the only medical treatment that can be impacted by a pregnancy, particularly in anti-choice societies. In countries where abortion is illegal under all circumstances, women can be denied life-saving medical care if it has the potential to jeopardize their pregnancy. In 2012, a 16-year-old pregnant teen in the Dominican Republican died after her doctors refused to give her chemotherapy treatment because it may have harmed her fetus. And in a high-profile case last year in Ireland, 31-year-old Savita Halapannavar died after developing blood poisoning during a miscarriage because her doctors wouldn’t take the necessary steps to end the pregnancy. This isn’t just an issue in other countries, however. The same conflicts between medical practice and stringent anti-abortion laws emerge in the United States’ thousands of Catholic-affiliated hospitals across the country.