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Will My End-of-Life Wishes Be Honored if I am Pregnant?

by Rania Combs

Erick Munoz’s nightmare began on November 26 when he found his wife, who was 14 weeks pregnant, lying unconscious on their kitchen. Although she was rushed to the hospital, it was too late. Doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas told the family Marlise Munoz was brain dead.

Marlise, a paramedic, didn’t have a Directive to Physicians, but had told her husband and parents that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. The family asked doctors at the hospital to remove the ventilators keeping he body functioning, but the hospital refused citing a Texas law that forbids the withdrawal of life-sustaining from a pregnant patient.

The Texas law the hospital referred to was Section 166.049 of the Health and Safety Code which provides

“A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.”

The hospital interpreted this section to require that ventilators continue to keep Marlise’s organs functioning even though she was both medically and legally dead under Texas law. What’s even more heartbreaking about what this family endured was that the hospital admitted that the baby had significant abnormalities and was not viable. It had fluid building up inside his skull, heart problems and its lower extremities were badly deformed, likely from having been deprived of oxygen when its mother died.

Legal experts had already weighed in against the hospital’s interpretation of the statute, and last week, a judge agreed that the hospital was misapplying the statute. Since Marlise was legally dead, she was not a patient and the statute did not apply to her.

The Munoz family lawyer put it this way:

“Pregnant women die every day. They die in car accidents, of heart attacks and other injuries. And when they die, their fetus dies with them.”

The judge issued an order requiring the hospital to disconnect all respirators last week. For the Munoz family, the healing can now begin.

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