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Texas Fetal Rights Case: Delayed Justice

Map of Texas with focus on Austin

Editors’ Note: The following is an update to an earlier post on this fetal rights case by bioethicist Ruth Macklin, Ph.D.

Justice has prevailed in the case of Marlise Muñoz, the brain-dead, pregnant woman in a Texas hospital that was refusing to remove her from life support against her family’s wishes.

The hospital had cited a Texas law that requires pregnant patients to be kept on life support for the sake of the fetus.   A District Court judge, R.H. Wallace Jr., ordered the hospital to remove the patient’s life support, contending that the law did not apply to her because she is dead.  The hospital’s lawyer argued that although Ms. Muñoz met the clinical criteria for brain death, the law still did apply to her. Meanwhile, the hospital admitted that the fetus was not viable, and medical records obtained by the family’s lawyer showed that the fetus was abnormal.  The hospital complied with the court order and removed the life support from Ms. Muñoz on Sunday, January 26, 2014.

Although this case was resolved satisfactorily—probably not soon enough for the distraught family—a question remains about the ethics of the Texas law in cases where it does apply to pregnant patients who are still alive but in a coma or persistent vegetative state. When patients have expressed their wishes about life-prolonging treatment, and when families of patients who no longer have capacity are authorized to make medical decisions for them, pregnancy should not constitute an exception to the rights of patients and families.

The judge in this case declined to rule on the constitutionality of the Texas law because the law did not apply to Ms. Muñoz.  In my view, laws that deny pregnant women in a medical setting the same rights as non-pregnant patients are unethical, and states that have such laws should overturn them.

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