FORT WORTH, Texas – A judge on Friday ordered a Texas hospital to remove life support for a pregnant, brain-dead woman whose family had argued that she would not want to be kept in that condition.
Judge R. H. Wallace Jr. issued the ruling in the case of Marlise Munoz. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth has been keeping Munoz on life support against her family’s wishes. The judge gave the hospital until Monday afternoon to remove life support. The hospital did not immediately say Friday whether it would appeal.
Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant when her husband, Erick Munoz, found her unconscious Nov. 26, possibly due to a blood clot. Both the hospital and the family agree that she meets the criteria to be considered brain-dead – which means she is dead both medically and under Texas law – and that the fetus could not be born alive at this point.
But the hospital had not pronounced her dead and continues to treat her over the objections of both Erick Munoz and her parents, who sat together in court Friday.
“Mrs. Munoz is dead,” Wallace said in issuing his ruling, adding that meant the hospital was misapplying a state law that prohibits the removal of life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient.
Larry Thompson, a state’s attorney representing the public hospital, had told the judge the hospital had a legal responsibility to protect the unborn fetus.
“There is a life involved, and the life is the unborn child,” Thompson said.
But Jessica Hall Janicek and Heather King, Erick Munoz’s attorneys, accused the hospital of conducting a “science experiment” and warned of the dangerous precedent her case could set, raising the specter of special ICUs for brain-dead women carrying babies.
“There is an infant, and a dead person serving as a dysfunctional incubator,” King said.
Erick Munoz said he and his wife are paramedics who were clear that they didn’t want life support in this type of situation. Her parents agreed. He declined to comment as he left the courtroom, and King and Janicek did not say what they would do next, pending a potential appeal by the hospital.
The hospital said in a statement Friday that it “appreciates the potential impact of the consequences of the order on all parties involved” and was deciding whether to appeal.
The case has raised questions about end-of-life care and whether a pregnant woman who is considered legally and medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus. It also has gripped attention on both sides of the abortion debate, with anti-abortion groups arguing Munoz’s fetus deserves a chance to be born. Several anti-abortion advocates attended Friday’s hearing.
Hospital officials have said they were bound by the Texas Advance Directives Act, which prohibits withdrawal of treatment from a pregnant patient. Several experts interviewed by the Associated Press, including two who helped draft the legislation, have said the hospital is misapplying the law because Marlise Munoz would be considered legally and medically dead.
Earlier this week, Erick Munoz’s attorneys said the fetus, now believed to be at about 22 weeks’ gestation, is “distinctly abnormal.” The attorneys said they based that statement on medical records they received from the hospital.