HALTOM CITY, TX, January 6, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A North Texas woman and her unborn child are being kept on life support against her husband’s wishes thanks to a 1999 law signed by then-Governor George W. Bush that forbids hospitals from withdrawing extraordinary care from pregnant women before their babies are viable for delivery.
On Nov. 26, 33-year-old Marlise Munoz, who was 14-weeks pregnant at the time, collapsed at her home after getting out of bed to attend to her 1-year-old son. Her husband Erick, a paramedic, tried to revive her, but was unsuccessful.
Doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital determined she was in cardiac arrest. They were able to restart her heart, but she never regained consciousness and remains on a ventilator.
Because Marlise had never created a living will, Erick assumed it was up to him to decide whether to keep her on the ventilator or not. He claims that he and his wife – also a paramedic – had extensively discussed end-of-life care issues, due to their jobs bringing them into contact with so many families facing unexpected tragedies. He says Marlise would never have wanted a machine keeping her alive.
However, when Erick asked doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital to remove his wife from life support, he was surprised to learn that because the baby she is carrying is still alive, they are legally prevented from doing so.
The Texas Advanced Directives Act states that “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” The law applies even if the patient has signed a do-not-resuscitate order as part of a living will.
According to the law, Marlise must be kept on life support until her baby is developed enough to be viable outside the womb. At that point, the child can be delivered via cesarean section and Erick will be able to remove his wife from life support if that is what he wants.
But Erick and other family members say they are worried that the baby might have been deprived of oxygen while Marlise’s heart was stopped, or that the drugs the doctors administered while trying to revive her may have damaged the baby in some way.
“That poor fetus had the same lack of oxygen, the same electric shocks, the same chemicals that got her heart going again,” Marlise’s father, Ernest Machado, told the Dallas News. “For all we know, it’s in the same condition that Marlise is in.”
Doctors say they can’t tell how the baby’s development might have been affected Malise’s trauma until later in the pregnancy. Currently, Marlise is 19 weeks pregnant and the baby is said to have a normal heartbeat.
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Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Toledo told LifeSiteNews that it is unlikely the baby has been seriously harmed.
“The amount of oxygen a baby gets is much different than the amount of oxygen we get out here in the environment,” Byrne told LSN. He said the blood supply to the baby is venous blood, which has already had most of the oxygen consumed by the mother’s body anyway. “The baby’s body is used to living with a lower oxygen content. The baby is protected by the uterus more than the mother’s brain is protected, or the liver is protected, or the heart is protected [from lack of oxygen].”
Byrne also doubted the medications used to revive Marlise posed much of a threat to the baby, since the baby was already 14 weeks developed when she collapsed. “A baby has all of his or her parts by eight weeks after conception,” Byrne told LSN. “And so the susceptibility to medicines that could be toxic – and most of those that are used in resuscitation are not toxic – but even those that are toxic, the greater chance [of harm] is early in pregnancy, that’s when you have to be mostly concerned.”
Byrne also disagrees with those who argue the Texas law should not apply to Marlise because her alleged lack of brain activity (the family has claimed she is brain dead, but the hospital has not confirmed this, citing patient confidentiality) means she is “legally dead.”
“This mother has a beating heart, she has circulation, respiration. Her liver works, her kidneys work, her immune mechanisms work as well as any woman who is pregnant … all of these things are perfectly normal, and they would never happen in a cadaver,” Byrne told LSN.
Byrne said the longest lasting pregnancy he can recall after a woman was “declared” brain dead and put on life support was 103 days. In July, a Hungarian woman gave birth to a healthy infant after three months on life support following a stroke.
Said Byrne, “This mother is a living mother, and people ought to continue to take care of her. Her baby is a living baby, and that baby can be born.”