Two weeks ago, Bustle reported that the state of Texas is keeping a brain-dead pregnant woman, Marlise Munoz, on life support against her family's wishes. The reason? To protect her unborn fetus. Yes, apparently, that is completely legal. Now, Munoz's story is making rounds on the Internet, with Slate's Amanda Marcotte asking for the law to be overturned — and medical and legal ethicists saying the life support law has been misinterpreted. As we reported, this case takes protecting the life of a fetus to new extremes:
Even though they never officially signed a Do Not Resuscitate form, Munoz says the couple had discussed life support after Marlise’s brother died eight years ago. Munoz says Marlise never wanted a machine to keep her alive. The couple, who already have a 1-year-old, worked as paramedics and saw firsthand the struggles that life-or-death situations pose for different patients.
“We knew what her wishes were,” Munoz says.
Even if they had signed a DNR form, Texas law still mandates that a pregnant woman be kept alive for the baby’s sake. And if Marlise’s family filed an injunction, experts say it would be unlikely that a judge would override the law. The state’s Health and Safety Code is very clear-cut, stating: “A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.”
Doctors say the baby still has a normal heartbeat, and they will know more about its health after tests can be performed in mid-February. But Munoz is worried that his child’s brain development will be stunted. He also says even though his wishes are unpopular with some people, he doesn’t this decision to spiral into a pro-life/pro-choice battle.
This isn't a stand-alone incident. Several cases in which the fetus's "personhood" has been valued over the mother's have occurred in just the past few months:
1. In Louisiana, a 17-year-old woman admitted she'd snorted cocaine a few days before giving birth to a stillborn. She was promptly charged with feticide.
2. In Wisconsin, a 28-year-old pregnant woman, Alicia Beltran, was handcuffed and taken to court for refusing to accept treatment for drug addiction — even though Beltran had successfully weaned herself off a Percocet addiction the year before, and had no substances in her system at the time of her arrest. The police also appointed a lawyer for her unborn child.
In the case of Munoz, what the Texas Health and Safety Code says:
“A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.”
“If she is dead, I don’t see how she can be a patient, and I don’t see how we can be talking about treatment options for her,” said Thomas W. Mayo, an expert on health care law and bioethics at the Southern Methodist University law school in Dallas. Arthur L. Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan, agreed. “The Texas Legislature can’t require doctors to do the impossible and try to treat someone who’s dead,” Mr. Caplan said. “I don’t think they intended this statute the way the hospital is interpreting it.”
In the case of the 17-year-old Louisiana woman, here's what the law had to say, as we reported:
Fetal homicide laws vary greatly by state, and Louisiana is one of 38 states to recognize it as a crime. The mother in the most recent case was charged with second-degree feticide, which is applied when “the offense is committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation of the mother of the unborn child sufficient to deprive an average person of his self control and cool reflection.” However, Louisiana law also defines feticide as a crime committed by “a person other than the mother of the unborn child,” raising the question of under what authority, exactly, the mother is being charged.
The Wisconsin case with Beltran follows in the same pattern: A law being misapplied or applied much too broadly. The law was created to give authorities the power to incarcerate pregnant women engaging in substance abuse. That said, Beltran wasn't even abusing substances, yet authorities applied the law very broadly and used it to restrain her.
Putting aside that the laws seem to have been misapplied, even if this legislation was applied correctly, it still implicitly supports that a fetus is worth more than the mother it resides in and is sustained by.
Many of these laws (and pending bills) also defy moral and scientific logic. A Wisconsin neonatologist, Dr. Steven Leuthner, has dissed the law that allows Wisconsin authorities to jail substance-abusing pregnant women, condemning it as "a bunch of crap" in a 2005 article that alleges it treats women like criminals, instead of patients.
In Ohio, Republicans have constantly submitted and resubmitted the Heartbeat Bill, which would ban abortion after a few weeks into the pregnancy — around the time that the fetal heartbeat can presumably be heard. The bill is faulty by so many standards: Whether or not a heartbeat can be detected depends on any number of factors; from the embryo's position in the uterus, to the woman's fat percentage.
So, we have to ask ourselves: Since when did pregnant women lose their personhood? Since when were unborn embryos and fetuses worth more than their mothers? How can we let this stand?