Pregnant, brain-dead woman Marlise Munoz has life support removed

Won legal battle: Erick Munoz, in front of a family portrait with his wife and son.
Won legal battle: Erick Munoz, in front of a family portrait with his wife and son. Photo: AP

Houston: A pregnant, brain-dead woman who has been at the centre of a two-month-long ethical and legal battle over whether to remove her from life support has been disconnected from the machines and her body has been released to her husband.

The announcement from the family's lawyers came just hours after the hospital that had fought the move said it would follow a judge's order to remove the woman, Marlise Munoz, from a ventilator and other machines, appearing to end a legal fight that had sparked a national debate over abortion, end-of-life care and a Texas law that barred medical officials from cutting off life support from a pregnant woman.

Ms Munoz's husband, Erick, as well as her parents, Lynne and Ernest Machado, had fought for the right to remove her from life support systems, arguing that she had died shortly after arriving at the hospital in late November after suffering an apparent blood clot in her lungs.

Lynne and Ernest Machado, parents of Marlise Munoz, who was taken off life support, with their grandson and Munoz's son, ...
Lynne and Ernest Machado, parents of Marlise Munoz, who was taken off life support, with their grandson and Munoz's son, Mateo, 15 months, in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo: New York Times

"The Munoz and Machado families will now proceed with the sombre task of laying Marlise Munoz's body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered," Mr Munoz's lawyers, Heather King and Jessica Hall Janicek, said.

"May Marlise Munoz finally rest in peace, and her family find the strength to complete what has been an unbearably long and arduous journey."

On Sunday, JPS Health Network, the hospital system that had fought against removing Ms Munoz from life support on the grounds that it was obliged to because of the law, relented because of the court order.

The network, which runs John Peter Smith Hospital as part of a taxpayer-financed county health district, said in a statement that the past weeks had been difficult for both the family of the woman and her caregivers, but defended its handling of the case.

"JPS Health Network has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute," said hospital spokeswoman Jill Labbe. "From the onset, JPS has said its role was not to make nor contest law, but to follow it."

On Friday, a state district judge ordered the hospital to remove Munoz, 33, from life-support machines by no later than 5pm on Monday, ruling that a Texas law requiring life-sustaining treatment for pregnant women did not apply to her because she was brain-dead and therefore legally dead.


The judge, R.H. Wallace Jr of the state District Court in Tarrant County, had sided with lawyers for Ms Munoz's relatives, who had argued that the hospital was misinterpreting the state law and had asked the court to order the doctors to take her off life support immediately.

The hospital did not dispute that Ms Munoz was brain-dead, saying in court documents that she met the clinical criteria for brain death two days after she was brought there in late November. But it defended its decision to keep her on life support against the family's wishes, in part by insisting that the law and the legislators who passed it had expressed a "commitment to the life and health of unborn children".

The hospital's lawyer told the judge that the law still applied to Ms Munoz even though she was dead and that it was correctly interpreting the intentions of the Texas Legislature.

The lawyer, Larry Thompson, an assistant district attorney, wrote in court documents that the state had a compelling interest in protecting a foetus. He pointed to a section of the state penal code that stated that a person may commit criminal homicide by causing the death of a foetus and a recently passed bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the theory that a foetus was capable of feeling pain at that stage.

The law affecting life support of pregnant women "must convey legislative intent to protect the unborn child, otherwise the Legislature would have simply allowed a pregnant patient to decide to let her life, and the life of her unborn child, end," Mr Thompson wrote.

Ms Munoz remained on the third floor of the hospital's intensive-care unit. She was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child when she arrived at the hospital, on November 26, and was 22 weeks into pregnancy when her life support was switched off.

The foetus was "distinctly abnormal" and was not viable, her husband's lawyers said. It suffered from hydrocephalus - an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain - as well as a possible heart problem, and the lower extremities were deformed to the extent that the gender could not be determined.

Organisations opposed to abortion expressed support for the hospital's position. A statement released on Friday by two groups - the National Black Prolife Coalition and Operation Rescue - said the foetus deserved not to be killed, and that numerous people had expressed an interest in adopting the child when it was born, even if it had disabilities.

The Texas law itself, passed in 1989 and amended in 1999, provides lawyers for each side with little guidance. The relevant section of the Texas Health and Safety Code is a single sentence, reading, "A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient."

New York Times