By Dave Andrusko
I was on my way Saturday to the quarterly meeting of the National Right to Life Board of Directors when I stopped to check my Droid for the latest news about Marlise Muñoz , the pregnant brain dead woman whose family had sued to have her removed from life support.
Late Friday, after hearing both the family and the hospital which had steadfastly refused to take Mrs. Muñoz off life support (citing state law), Texas Judge R.H. Wallace sided with the family. He ordered John Peter Smith Hospital to declare Mrs. Muñoz dead and “withdraw life support by 5 p.m. Monday.”
The only remaining question was whether the hospital would appeal. It did not.
“The past eight weeks have been difficult for the Muñoz family, the caregivers and the entire Tarrant County community, which found itself involved in a sad situation,” a hospital statement said. “JPS Health Network has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute.”
According to the family’s attorneys, “The devices that had kept Marlise Muñoz ‘s heart and lungs working for two months were switched off about 11:30 a.m. Sunday.”
The news accounts struggled to define what happened next. One, for example, said Mrs. “Muñoz died sometime after 11:30am.” But none that I read stated that her unborn child, approximately 23 weeks of age, also died.
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In addition to her unborn baby, Mrs. Muñoz was also the mother of a 15-month-old son.
It was not until last week that the hospital publicly concurred with Erick Muñoz’s assertion that his wife met the clinical criteria for brain death. The hospital also said, however, “she did not leave a written directive and withdrawing life support ‘would cause the death of the unborn child,’” the Dallas Morning News reported.
The family insisted that Erick and Marlise Muñoz had discussed such an eventuality and that she had said she would not wish to be on life support.
Mrs. Muñoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed on her kitchen floor in November. Her husband tried to resuscitate his wife and called for an ambulance. Doctors restarted Mrs. Muñoz’s heart in the emergency room. She had been on life support since then.
The family also told the court that the baby was not “viable,” citing evidence that he or she was “’distinctly abnormal,’ suffers from hydrocephalus [water on the brain], has deformed lower extremities and a possible heart problem,” according to CNN.
But, as noted Friday, just how badly the child may—or may not—have been injured is unknown. CNN closed one of its stories with this:
For all the passions on both sides of the debate, others saw plenty of gray area — the kind of thing that might not be resolved until the baby is born and, perhaps, develops outside the womb.
“A lot depends, first of all, on how long the patient here was deprived of oxygen, or otherwise compromised,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ecker of Massachusetts General Hospital, who works on complicated pregnancies and prenatal diagnosis
“We can certainly use tools like ultrasound and MRI to sometimes see where there has been injury as a result of low blood pressure or low oxygen. But just seeing that things look well isn’t the same as saying that things will be well,” Ecker said.
The attorneys for the family, Heather King and Jessica Janicek, were nothing if not aggressive, to the point of colossal insensitivity.
According to the Dallas Morning News, “it was a sad truth, King said, that ‘pregnant women die every day.’”
“They die in car accidents. They die of heart attacks. They die from head injuries,” she said. “And when they die the fetus dies with them. That is the way it has always been and that way it should be.”