Should a pregnant woman be forced to remain on life support?

Jan 6, 2014 at 5:40 p.m. ET

A Texas woman is on life support despite her — and her family's — wishes. Why? Because state law requires it.

Law raises ethical questions
Woman on life support

She's pregnant and even though she is brain dead, the hospital is prohibited from removing her from the machines. Who is right?

The story about Marlise Munoz is a tragic one that has raised questions about a particular Texas law — one that requires a pregnant woman to be kept alive on life support, even if she has been declared brain dead. Her husband and family have requested that she be taken off the machines according to her own wishes, which she mentioned in advance of the event — but the hospital can’t comply. Is this law a reasonable and an ethical one, or do these grieving family members have a right to fulfill her wishes?

Life support quandary

Knowing when to remove a loved one from life support isn’t a decision anyone wants to make, but usually once someone is declared brain dead, that choice is easier. However, in the state of Texas, there is a law in place that prevents removing a pregnant woman from life support — no matter if she’s brain dead, if she has a living will and not even if she’s told her friends and family members that she’d rather not remain on life support in the event of brain death.

When Marlise Munoz’s husband found her collapsed on the floor, she was not breathing and had suffered irreversible brain damage. However, as she was 14 weeks pregnant at the time of her collapse, the hospital was unable to remove her from life support at the request of her husband once she was declared brain dead. His concern is based on two things — for one, they both have medical training and had discussed that in a situation like this, neither one wanted to be kept alive by machines. Also, he is worried that since she was without oxygen for a period of time, the fetus was as well, and though there is a steady heartbeat, there is no indication of the baby's health or brain activity.

Human incubator...

This sad situation has sparked controversy from many. One argument against the law is made by Heather, mom of two.

“I think the bottom line is, by keeping this woman on life support, the state is overriding her right to bodily autonomy,” she told us. “I understand there is a fetus involved, but we're talking about a 14-week fetus who [barely past the first trimester] has gone a substantial amount of time without oxygen. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to have the corpse of a loved one used as an incubator.”

Sarah, who is expecting her third child, agrees. “Not even remotely OK with this scenario,” she explained. “This disgusts and infuriates me. They are forcing a brain dead woman to carry a fetus to term that potentially has brain damage despite her family's and husband's wishes? What is the survival and defect rate for children born in this manner?”

... or a mother saving her child?

Others feel that Texas is right on this one. “When people say they don't want to be on life support, they are referring to everyday life,” said Charlene, mom of two. “I doubt 99 percent of them mean when they are pregnant as well. As a mother, I find it hard to believe that she wouldn't want to give her child a chance at life, and I feel wanting to take her off life support is very selfish. She is brain dead, she has no idea what's going on anyways. Why not try to save his baby?”

Lexi, mom of one, was conflicted. “On the one hand, her husband should be able to make this decision for her and especially if they have reason to believe the fetus was also harmed,” she shared. "However I feel most mothers (who wanted to become pregnant) would wish to remain on life support until their child is born. I doubt this was a particular scenario they discussed, and I know if it was me and tests indicated the fetus was healthy, I would want to be kept alive until the child was born. Either way, it's so, so sad.”

The situation is tragic, and her husband and family are understandably having a hard time with it because they have no closure and cannot properly say goodbye to her as long as she remains on life support. The law doesn’t look to be changing soon, but perhaps this will prompt women to discuss this situation with their partners in the unlikely event it happens to their family as well.

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