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1:18 pm
Wed January 8, 2014

Pregnant Woman On Life Support Draws Attention To Texas Law

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 5:29 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Fort Worth, Texas, a tragic and unusual medical ethics case is making headlines. Five weeks ago, a man found his wife unresponsive in their bed. A brain embolism is suspected. She was 14 weeks pregnant. Since then, the 33-year-old woman has lain unresponsive. But the hospital says Texas law requires they keep her alive until she delivers the child.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Both Erick Munoz and his wife, Marlise, are highly trained paramedics, experienced both in the world of medicine and the thin line between life and death. When contacted, Munoz declined to talk on tape and said he's taking a one-week break from giving emotionally wrenching interviews. Still, he confirmed that doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital told him his wife was brain dead and that he wants to honor his wife's wishes that she not be kept alive by machines.

TIM WHETSTONE: It is my understanding that Erick has been told that all EEGs that have been done show no brain activity.

GOODWYN: Tim Whetstone is a lieutenant at the Crowley Fire Department where the Munoz's worked. Munoz's colleagues have stepped in to release some information on their behalf. Whetstone believes Erick Munoz understands perfectly the medical situation.

WHETSTONE: I believe Erick not only knows what the doctors are telling him, I believe Erick knows from work history certain odds in the way things could turn out. He is basically preparing himself to do what he has to do going forward.

GOODWYN: Texas is one of 12 states that make an exception to honoring a patient's end-of-life directives if that patient is a pregnant woman. The state asserts it has an interest in fetal life that overrides a pregnant woman's last wishes, but this does not apply if the patient is dead. And the hospital says Marlise Munoz is not dead.

J.R. Labbe is a hospital spokesperson.

J.R. LABBE: Mr. Munoz, the patient's husband, has not signed the release necessary for us to speak in depth about his wife's case. What I can tell you is that Mrs. Munoz was admitted to our hospital on November 26th, and her condition is listed as serious.

GOODWYN: And if Munoz is in serious condition, she's obviously not dead. It's possible that Munoz could have an abnormal EEG and be in a persistent vegetative state. And under these conditions, the hospital says it believes it must keep her alive.

Laurence McCullough is a professor of medicine and medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

DR. LAURENCE MCCULLOUGH: If she's alive and if she has what's called a terminal or irreversible condition as those are defined in the Texas Advance Directives Act, that law provides for immunity against any civil or criminal liability in those cases.

GOODWYN: In other words, if the hospital were to honor Munoz's wishes to take his wife off life support, the hospital could be sued or even prosecuted.

MCCULLOUGH: One hypothesis is that the hospital has elected not to do that because they are making a judgment about exposing themselves to whatever consequences might occur if they did that.

GOODWYN: But even that interpretation of the Texas Advance Directives Act is in dispute. Another section says that the law shall not make anything illegal that was legal before. And before the act was passed, it was not illegal to take a pregnant woman off life support in Texas.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.