After collapsing on her kitchen floor from an apparent blood clot, Marlise Munoz was declared brain dead by a Fort Worth hospital. Her parents and husband told the doctors that Munoz would not want to be kept on life support. But as the family prepared to say goodbye to wife and daughter, the doctor gave them sudden and shocking news: the hospital would not terminate Munoz’s life, because she was 14 weeks pregnant. In a Tuesday New York Times article, authors Mary Fernandez and Erik Eckholm write,
More than a month later, Mrs. Munoz remains connected to life-support machines on the third floor of the I.C.U., where a medical team monitors the heartbeat of the fetus, now in its 20th week of development. Her case has become a strange collision of law, medicine, the ethics of end-of-life care and the issues swirling around abortion—when life begins and how it should be valued.
Munoz’s parents and husband do not want the baby. They want the doctors to pull the plug, per their original instructions. Munoz’s father, Ernest Machado, told the Times, “All she is is a host for a fetus. I get angry with the state. What business did they have delving into these areas? Why are they practicing medicine up in Austin?”
Munoz and her husband have a 14-month-old son, Mateo. The Times story includes a picture of the three of them: parents’ arms curled close around their infant son, smiling softly at him.
The hospital, in refusing to terminate Munoz’s life, is following Texas state law: it is one of two dozen states, according to the International Business Times, that prohibits doctors from cutting off life support to pregnant patients. The Texas law was passed in 1989, and amended in 1999.
Now NARAL Pro-Choice America has launched a petition to take Munoz off life support. ABC news quoted their petition in a Wednesday story: “The Munoz family deserves better than this—and it’s up to Texas attorney general Greg Abbott to show them that the state of Texas respects their wishes and their privacy.”
“If your goal is to legally enshrine the notion that pregnant women are incubators first and humans second, keeping their bodies alive to grow babies long after their minds are gone is a perfect way to do it,” wrote Slate author Amanda Marcotte. She said the family has expressed some fear that “the loss of oxygen that was enough to destroy Marlise Munoz’s brain probably did serious damage to her fetus.”
This story throws the difference between pro-life and pro-choice advocates into sharp relief. Views on life’s meaning, origin, and purpose weigh heavy in such debate—and few would deem this an easy decision for the family (or hospital) to make.
But at the same time, after viewing the picture of Erick and Marlise Munoz with their infant son, one can’t escape a feeling of bitter and painful irony. How could a father, so obviously loving and cherishing one child, want to terminate the life of another? Would it be wrong to extend Munoz’s life 19 (or fewer) weeks, to perhaps save her last child?
Munoz’s father told the Dallas Morning News, “What they’re doing serves no purpose.” But isn’t there purpose in preserving the life of your grandchild? I don’t mean that keeping Munoz on life support would be easy; her current condition must be excruciatingly painful for her husband and parents. The words of a writer and commentator can sound trite and preachy alongside such loss and perplexity, and that would be my last intent. There must be a wrenching agony in seeing your daughter, your wife in the prime of her life reduced to a forestalled corpse—dependent on hospital machinery as her body carries to term a child that will be born long having lost any hope of knowing its mother.
But in the midst of this grief, the life of that unborn child seems to present a respite in the sorrow, a fresh beauty in the midst of death. They may not yet know whether their baby is “damaged.” But even a damaged baby is beautiful. This life could bring promise amidst the pain. This life could comfort them in the midst of their grief and their loss.