When Politics Intrudes

On Friday, Texas Judge R.H. Wallace, Jr., ruled that Marlise Muñoz, a 33-year-old mother who has been on life support since November and pronounced brain-dead by doctors, should be taken off the ventilator that’s been keeping her alive for the sake of her unborn child.

Spokesmen for John Peter Smith Hospital said that a Texas law dealing with life support for women who are pregnant was keeping them from granting the family’s wishes that she be removed from the ventilator.

The judge directed that Mrs. Muñoz, who had signed a “do not resuscitate” request, be removed from life support by 5 PM today.

While hospital officials are considering an appeal, “Lawyers for Mrs. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was ‘distinctly abnormal’ and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem,” The New York Times writes, (Jan. 24).

Speaking to the court on behalf of the hospital, attorney Larry Thompson “…said that Ms. Muñoz met the clinical criteria for brain death two days after she arrived there. But he argued that the law still applied to her, and that the Texas Legislature’s passage of the law showed that the state had a compelling interest in protecting unborn children.

“Mr. Thompson wrote in court papers that the Texas Penal Code’s definition of an individual stated that an unborn child was alive at every stage of gestation, from fertilization until birth. And he pointed to a bill backed by Gov. Rick Perry that lawmakers passed last year that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the theory that the fetus can feel pain at that stage.”

However, Judge Wallace said that the law did not apply to Ms. Muñoz because she has been declared dead.

Finally, a judge who not only understands the wishes of the family but the implications of a law that is simply wrong-headed.

Heather King,”… a lawyer for Mr. Muñoz said Mr. Thompson’s argument amounted to a sweeping public policy declaration with broad implications. [King] said that if the state indeed had such an interest, paramedics who arrived at crash scenes would be required to give dying women pregnancy tests to ensure they were following the law.

“Ms. King apologized in the courtroom for putting it so crudely, but told the judge that pregnant women “die every day,” adding: ‘When they die, their fetus dies with them. That is the way it’s always been, and the way it should be.’

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote (Jan. 24), that “Lawyer Jessica Janicek, who also represented the family, said the hospital was using ‘her body as a science experiment,’ and that the hospital was using the law to avoid legal liability.

“Janicek said while being under life support, Marlise Muñoz had suffered from a variety of infections, and that the fetus, now in its 22nd week, was not progressing normally.
‘That’s not surprising because all of this is occurring in a dead body,’ Janicek said. ‘Marlise Muñoz is dead. She has been dead for two months, and for the first time in two months, we ask that she be treated as a dead person.’ ”

Lawyers for Mr. Muñoz had asked Judge Wallace to declare the Texas law unconstitutional, saying that it violated Ms. Muñoz’s 14th Amendment right to make medical decisions about her own body. However, Judge Wallace refused to take the issue that far saying that since Ms. Muñoz was brain-dead, the law did not apply and he would make no ruling.

From an ethical standpoint, one can only hope that this tragic case will compel Texas legislators to re-examine and repeal, or greatly modify a law that focuses more on politics than reality.

Outside the courtroom, King said, “This was a sad situation all the way around. We are relieved that Erick Muñoz can now move forward with the process of burying his wife.”

And what did Texas Governor Rick Perry have to say on all this? Well, he didn’t.

“Gov. Rick Perry’s office called the case ‘tragic’ and said his prayers are with the family. ‘This was a matter for the court,’ his spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.”

The chief-executive of the second most populous state who, when he was running for president declared, “As Americans, we don’t see the role of government as guaranteeing outcomes, but allowing free men and women to flourish based on their own vision, their hard work and their personal responsibility.”

Now, after a serious issue of responsibility comes forth, Rick Perry has nothing to say.

That says a lot.

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