Brain-dead pregnant woman removed from life support

Texas hospital complies with court order, family’s wishes to turn off life support of pregnant brain-dead woman

Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, and attorneys walking to district court in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 24, 2014.
Tim Sharp/AP

A Texas hospital removed a pregnant, brain-dead woman from life support on Sunday after a judge's order that it was misapplying state law to disregard her family's wishes, the woman’s attorney said.

J.R. Labbe, a spokeswoman for John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, issued a statement Sunday that it will no longer give "life-sustaining" treatment to Marlise Muñoz, whom the court ruled on Friday was legally dead.

"From the onset, JPS has said its role was not to make nor contest law but to follow it," the statement says. "On Friday, a state district judge ordered the removal of life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Muñoz. The hospital will follow the court order."

Judge R.H. Wallace gave the Fort Worth hospital until 5 p.m. Monday to comply with his ruling to remove Marlise Muñoz from life support, which Erick Muñoz says is what his wife would have wanted.

She was 14 weeks pregnant when her husband found her unconscious on Nov. 26, possibly because of a blood clot.

Both the hospital and family agreed before Wallace's ruling that Marlise Muñoz meets the criteria to be considered brain-dead — which means she is dead both medically and under Texas law — and that her fetus, at about 23 weeks, could not be born alive this early in pregnancy.

The widely watched 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 garnered attention on both sides of the abortion debate, with anti-abortion groups arguing that Muñoz's fetus deserved a chance to be born.

Erick Muñoz is a paramedic, as was his wife. Both were familiar with end-of-life issues before her collapse and knew they did not want to be kept alive by machines in this type of situation.

He described in a signed affidavit Thursday what it was like to see his wife now — her glassy, "soulless" eyes and the smell of her perfume replaced by what he knows to be the smell of death. He said he tried to hold her hand but can't.

"Her limbs have become so stiff and rigid due to her deteriorating condition that now, when I move her hands, her bones crack, and her legs are nothing more than dead weight," he said.

But the hospital argued it was bound by Texas law, which states that life-sustaining treatment cannot be withdrawn from a pregnant patient, regardless of her end-of-life wishes.

Legal experts interviewed by The Associated Press have said the hospital was misreading the law and that the law doesn't have an absolute command to keep someone like Marlise Muñoz on life support.

Larry Thompson, a state's attorney arguing on behalf of the hospital Friday, said the hospital was trying to protect the rights of the fetus as it believed Texas law instructed it to do.

"There is a life involved, and the life is the unborn child," Thompson said.

But on Sunday the hospital said it would respect the judge's order and back down.

"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," the hospital's statement says. "JPS Health Network has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute."

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