With a ventilator slowly inflating her lungs and forcing oxygen into a bloodstream moved through her body by an artificial heartbeat, Marlise Munoz is unaware that she has become the focus of yet another American debate over what it is to live and die, and over abortion.
Marlise, a paramedic, was 33 years old and 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed in November, probably from a pulmonary embolism, a fatal blood clot in a lung.
Her husband Erick, a firefighter, found her slumped on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night and called for help even as he fought to resuscitate her.
At the John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, doctors used drugs and electric shocks to restart her heart. They were too late. Doctors discovered that though machines were able to artificially maintain some of the mechanical processes of her body, Marlise’s brain was silent. She was dead, clinically and legally.
The family gathered by her bedside in the hospital’s three-storey intensive care unit and prepared to farewell her. They were stunned when doctors refused to turn off the ventilator.
Having detected a foetal heartbeat hospital authorities said they were bound by a Texas law that prohibits doctors from withholding “life-sustaining treatment” from a pregnant woman.
Erick protested. He and Marlise had lived their professional lives close to life and death and had discussed circumstances like these. Marlise did not want such artificial medical intervention. Marlise’s extended family and Erick’s colleagues agreed.
Marlise’s mother, Lynne Machado, 60, told The New York Times: “It’s about a matter of our daughter’s wishes not being honoured by the state of Texas.” Her father, Ernest Machado, 60, a former police officer, told the Dallas News: “That poor foetus had the same lack of oxygen, the same electric shocks, the same chemicals that got her heart going again. For all we know, it’s in the same condition that Marlise is in. All we want is to let her rest, to let her go to sleep. What they’re [the hospital staff] doing serves no purpose.”
This shows the problems of legislating in an area, where doctors and families should have discretion.
Assuming the courts do not over-rule the hospital, then we have three broad possible outcomes:
- The baby/feotus dies or is still-born, meaning Munoz was kept on life support for no reason for several months, causing huge anguish to her family.
- The baby is born, but is severely brain damaged. Who then looks after him or her?
- The baby is born and is healthy, and grows up learning that if his family had got their way, they would not have been born.
So whatever happens, the outcome looks to be pretty sad.