The family of Marlise Muñoz, a brain-dead and pregnant Texas woman who remained on life support for nearly two months because of state intervention, is working on new legislation that would expand the rights of pregnant women and prevent other Texan families from enduring their painful ordeal. On Thursday, the Muñoz family formally introduced Marlise's Law alongside state Rep. Elliott Naishtat in a press conference hosted by the ACLU of Texas. There, Marlise's parents and husband honored their late daughter, who they believe did not have the right to die with dignity because of existing state law.
"The state not only tied our hands, but those of the doctors and the hospital too," said Lynne Machado, Marlise's mother. "What should have been an immensely private and personal moment for our family was used as a political debate."
Marlise Muñoz collapsed on Nov. 26, 2013, after suffering a pulmonary embolism that left her brain without oxygen for over an hour. Doctors declared the 33-year-old paramedic and mother of one brain dead two days later. Although brain dead is the legal definition of death in Texas, the state wouldn't let the Muñoz family take Marlise off life support because she was 14 weeks pregnant.
The current Texas health code states that patients who are pregnant cannot be taken off life support or denied life-saving resuscitation, even if it was the patient's wish or stipulated in a written directive. This little-known health code provision angered the Muñoz family, who reiterated that even though Marlise did not have a written will, she had previously expressed that she wouldn't want to live on life support. Heather Busby, of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Bustle:
Texas is a hostile site to be a pregnant person right now. ... Texas has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality, which is ridiculous for a state with such vast resources. We need better care for people throughout all stages of pregnancy and beyond. We’re failing.
The Muñoz family watched Marlise's body deteriorate as doctors waited to see if the fetus she carried would develop normally. In late January, a state judge ruled that the hospital must release Marlise from life support at the direction of her family. She was taken off life support on Jan. 26, exactly two months after she first collapsed.
With Marlise's Law, the Muñoz family hopes to amend the health code so pregnant women can have their own end-of-life wishes respected. "I don’t want to tell any family what to do in such a difficult time with such a private decision," Marlise's husband, Erick Muñoz, said at the press conference. "I just want every family to have the right to make the best decision for them without interference from the government."
The bill, which Rep. Naishtat filed on Thursday, would simply revise the state's advanced directive by removing the pregnancy exclusions. Specifically, this dangerous line: "I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant."
"Marlise’s Law enables physicians, health care providers and medical institutions to honor a woman's wishes and personal values," Naishtat said on Thursday. "This bill does not preclude a woman from receiving medical treatment."
The tragic case of Marlise Muñoz played out in the public eye, as it sparked a moral debate that quickly turned to familiar anti-abortion politics. Numerous pro-life groups, including the National Right to Life and extremist anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, came out in support of the Texas law. Local Christian leaders held vigils outside the Fort Worth hospital, praying for Marlise's fetus.
One faith leader, Pastor Stephen E. Broden of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, even went so far as suggesting "alternatives" for the Muñoz family, as if the fetus would be able to survive. "We must save this baby," Broden said last year. "There are families willing to take the baby and provide a safe place for it to grow in a loving environment."
However, the Muñoz family has reiterated to the public since day one that this was not a pro-life issue — nor should it be. "The doctors weren’t practicing medicine, they were practicing politics," Lynne Machado said on Thursday.
"Once the patient and her family decide what’s right for their situation, the law shouldn’t stand in the way," added Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "Marlise’s Law will repeal the harmful pregnancy exclusion and restore trust and dignity to all Texas families."
Unfortunately, many Texan politicians continue to see this as a debate over a pregnant woman's bodily autonomy, and are using Marlise's case as a way to erode rights for pregnant women. Just last month, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause filed H.B. 1901, which is the direct opposite of Marlise's Law. Under Krause's proposed legislation, brain-dead pregnant women would be forced by the state to stay on life support if the fetus was developing. A court-ordered guardian would then be appointed to look after the unborn fetus and represent it in court, regardless of the wishes of the family or the pregnant woman's end-of-life directive. Busby, of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told Bustle:
It’s troublesome. The bill establishes personhood rights for the zygote, the fetus — whichever stage of pregnancy the woman is in. ... It’s a really biased bill. It’s not about the baby. It’s about subjecting a pregnant person to second-class status.
It's disturbing, unethical, and hardly limited to Texas. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Women Policy Studies, 31 states have pregnancy clauses in their advanced directive codes. Of those 31 states, 12 have clauses like Texas, automatically invalidating a brain-dead woman's written directive or wishes if she's pregnant.
Like Busby said, these extreme provisions end up reducing women to "second-class citizens," ACLU's Burke agreed. But with Marlise's Law, the Muñoz family may just lead the way in expanding pregnant women's rights in not only Texas, but also across the United States.
Images: Getty Images, Marlise Muñoz/Facebook
Correction: The article originally stated that Marlise Muñoz died on Jan. 26, 2014. Marlise was taken off life support that day, but was declared brain dead on Nov. 28, 2013. We regret this error.