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Brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman taken off life support

Erick Munoz's attorney Heather King gives a statement outside the courtroom after a judge's ruling in his wife's life or death case at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Tom Fox)

FORT WORTH, Texas: A very public battle over the fate of a brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman and her fetus has ended quietly and privately, as she has been taken off life support and her family prepares for her burial.

John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth complied Sunday with a judge’s order to pull any life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Munoz, who was declared brain-dead in November, but kept on machines for the sake of her fetus, now at 23 weeks’ gestation.

Munoz was removed from the machines afterward and allowed to die. The fetus was not delivered.

The hospital’s decision brought an apparent end to a case that inspired debates about abortion and end-of-life decisions, as well as whether a pregnant woman who is considered legally and medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus, per Texas law. Anti-abortion activists attended Friday’s court hearing and spoke out in favor of trying to deliver the fetus.

Whether the Munoz case leads Texas to change the law remains unclear. In recent years, the Legislature has enacted several new anti-abortion restrictions, including setting the legal guideline for when a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks – a milestone Marlise Munoz’s fetus passed about three weeks ago.

Munoz’s husband, Erick Munoz, sued the hospital because it would not remove life support as he said his wife would have wanted in such a situation. The couple, both paramedics, was familiar with end-of-life issues, and Erick said his wife had told him she would not want to be kept alive under such circumstances.

But the hospital refused his request, citing Texas law that says life-sustaining treatment cannot be withdrawn from a pregnant patient, regardless of her end-of-life wishes.

Judge R.H. Wallace sided Friday with Erick Munoz, saying in his order: “Mrs. Munoz is dead.”

Erick Munoz found his wife unconscious in their home on Nov. 26, possibly due to a blood clot. Doctors soon determined that she was brain-dead, which meant that she was both medically and legally dead by law, but kept her on machines to keep her organs functioning for the sake of the fetus.

Legal experts said the hospital was misreading the Texas Advance Directives Act and that the law wasn’t an absolute command to keep a pregnant woman on life support.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

A very public battle over the fate of a brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman and her fetus has ended quietly and privately, as she has been taken off life support and her family prepares for her burial.

John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth complied Sunday with a judge's order to pull any life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Munoz, who was declared brain-dead in November, but kept on machines for the sake of her fetus, now at 23 weeks' gestation.

Munoz was removed from the machines afterward and allowed to die.

Munoz's husband, Erick Munoz, sued the hospital because it would not remove life support as he said his wife would have wanted in such a situation.


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