What's at issue in Texas battle over brain-dead pregnant woman

Eyes today focus on a Fort Worth courtroom that finds itself at the intersection of a family's desire and Texas law as the fate of a brain-dead woman and the status of her fetus are debated.

State District Judge R.H. Wallace will hear arguments regarding Marlise Munoz, now on life support. Her husband, Erick Munoz of Haltom City, said his wife, a fellow paramedic, told him she wanted to be taken off of machines if she ever came to this point.

Officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth contend they're bound by a state law that prohibits the withdrawal of treatment from a patient such as Munoz, who is about 22 weeks pregnant. They cite a state law they say requires a pregnant woman be kept on life support until the fetus is viable, usually at 24 to 26 weeks.

Munoz has been on respirators and ventilators since she was found unconscious in her home in November. 

When Munoz arrived at the hospital seven weeks ago, the media focused on her health and on the question of whether she was brain-dead. Those questions raised the legal issue about whether a pregnant woman who is considered medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of the fetus.

In recent days, the family has shifted the debate to include the health of the fetus. One of the legal issues in Friday’s arguments will be whether the law, the Texas Advance Directives Act, applies in this case since Munoz is legally and medically dead.

The fetus is “distinctly abnormal,” attorneys for the woman's husband said in a statement released to the media. The attorneys, Heather King and Jessica Hall Janicek, based their statement on medical records they received from the hospital.

“Even at this early stage, the lower extremities are deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined,” King and Janicek said.

“The fetus suffers from hydrocephalus [water on the brain]. It also appears that there are further abnormalities, including a possible heart problem, that cannot be specifically determined due to the immobile nature of Mrs. Muñoz’s deceased body,” the statement said.

“Quite sadly, this information is not surprising due to the fact that the fetus, after being deprived of oxygen for an indeterminate length of time, is gestating within a dead and deteriorating body, as a horrified family looks on in absolute anguish, distress and sadness,” the attorneys said.

Spokeswomen for the hospital and the Tarrant County District Attorney's office, which is representing the hospital in the lawsuit, have repeatedly declined to comment outside of court.

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