Texas family describes "pure hell" of being forced to keep their loved one on life support

Marlise Munoz's end-of-life directive is being ignored because she was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed

Published January 6, 2014 6:25PM (EST)

          (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-332422p1.html'>VILevi</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(VILevi via Shutterstock)

Marlise Munoz’s heart hasn't beat on its own since she collapsed in November at home in Texas. A machine currently breathes for her, and her doctors have concluded that Munoz has no brain activity and no hope for recovery. Her husband and parents desperately want to honor her end-of-life directive and remove her from life support, but the state of Texas won't allow them to do it.

That's because Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed, and Texas law requires that she remain on life support to "sustain" the pregnancy -- regardless of her end-of-life directive, her family's wishes and the viability of the fetus.

As Andrea Grimes at RH Reality Check reports, the family has described the prolonged grief and heartache the law has caused them as "pure hell":

“We know she’s gone,” Munoz’s mother, Lynne Machado, told RH Reality Check. ”There’s just no brain activity. To see this body, it contradicts itself. It’s hard to really comprehend.”

A paramedic herself, Munoz never wanted to be kept on life support, having seen the effects of brain death regularly as part of her job. According to Machado, Marlise and her husband had had many conversations about their end-of-life wishes. But those wishes have been overridden by a state law that says the 14-week-old fetus that was growing inside Munoz when she collapsed takes precedence over her advance directive.

In the days following Munoz’s admission to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Machado and her son-in-law met with hospital officials, who said they had no choice but to keep Munoz on life support until she miscarried or the pregnancy came nearer to term and doctors could attempt a delivery.

“I understood that the intent of the law was to protect the fetus, to help it survive if it was viable,” said Machado. “But at 14 weeks, a fetus isn’t viable. We were told the fetus weighed between four and five ounces.” Doctors have as yet been unable to assess the damage that the many drugs used to revive Munoz’s heart, and her hour without oxygen, may have done to her pregnancy.

Now, Machado says she has had to cut back on her visits to the hospital; it’s too emotionally draining to see her “sun-shining” daughter reduced to a “shell.”

The Munoz family is currently challenging the law so “no pregnant woman and her family have to go through what we have to go through,” but may face an uphill legal battle in conservative Texas.

You can read Grimes' full report here.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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End-of-life Decisions Reproductive Choice Reproductive Rights Right To Die Texas Women's Rights