It's been seven weeks since Marlize Munoz suffered a pulmonary embolism and collapsed at her home. It's been clear for almost as long that she's lost all or most of her brain function and is destined to exist, so long as her heart is kept beating, in a vegetative state.
Her husband, Erick, as well as her parents, want to remove her from life support; it was what she would have wanted, they say. But Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she was checked into JPS Hospital in Fort Worth, and Texas law prevents doctors from discontinuing "life-sustaining" treatment so long as the fetus remains in her uterus.[jump]
The legal issues -- not to mention the ethical ones -- are complex. For one, there's the unsettled question of whether Munoz is legally considered brain dead. If she is, the machines that are keeping her alive are no longer "life-sustaining," and they can be turned off. (JPS hasn't said one way or the other, saying Erick Munoz has not authorized them to release details about his wife's case.)
Then you have the uncertain legal standing of the fetus. On the one hand, Supreme Court precedent dictates that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion pre-viability (Texas recently moved its threshold to 20 weeks), meaning it's not considered a person under the law, meaning that, at 14 weeks, Munoz' fetus wasn't legally considered a person. On the other, Texas laws suggest otherwise, including the aforementioned advanced-directives rule and criminal statutes that treat the death of a fetus at any stage of development as murder.
Further complicating things is Tarrant County's 1988 decision to ban abortions at JPS, which is run by the county.
Given the myriad legal issues, as well as the national debate the case has sparked, JPS welcomed the news that the Munoz family had hired a lawyer, "because the courts are the appropriate venue to provide clarity, direction and resolution in this matter."
This morning, Munoz took another step toward fulfilling JPS' wish for clarity, filing suit in Tarrant County District Court. In the suit, he says the hospital has diagnosed her has "brain dead" and that all life-sustaining treatments should be stopped.
Keeping her alive "makes no sense, and amounts to nothing more than the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body against the expressed will of the deceased and her family."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.