Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Life And Death Collide In Our Legal System

I've been following the two cases in the national news that deal with brain death but for differing reasons.  The California case involving of the family of Jahi McGrath illustrates one set of issues and the Texas case involving the husband and family of Marlise Munoz involves another set of issues.  In both cases the situations and decisions are heartbreaking and the heart break compounded because of legal fights over state laws.

In the McGrath case, the family decided not to accept the medical decision of brain death for their daughter and finally obtained court permission to have their daughter's body discharged to their care so they could obtain continued mechanical life support for Jahi in another medical facility.  For this to happen they had to first get a death certificate from the county and present this to the coroner's office who then gave them a permission slip to retrieve Jahi from Children's Hospital Oakland.  This is not that unusual in California because State Law makes provisions for families who have religious reasons to take charge of their deceased relatives.  The McGrath's religious reason was to give God more time to miraculously heal their daughter. As any Christian believer knows, there is New Testament precedent for this kind of miraculous healing.  Given the released information in this case, it's a given that miracle was not happening at Children's Hospital Oakland.  This is a truly tragic case, but the legal issues are pretty clear cut and as brutal as the legal solution was for the family, at least their wishes were met.  The Texas case is a different story.

In this situation Marlise Munoz collapsed at Thanksgiving from a brain hemorrhage while 14 weeks pregnant and was pronounced brain dead.  The death certificate has been issued.  Her husband and family want her taken off life support but a Texas law regarding pregnant women is being interpreted by the hospital, Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, as mandating they keep Marlise on life support until her fetus reaches viability.  Texas's Advanced Directive Law states this:  "A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient."  The family maintains that Marlise is no longer a patient because she is legally dead.  The hospital maintains they must maintain life support unless the courts decide otherwise.  PSH plans to maintain life support until the fetus is viable and can be taken by Caesarean section.  This will happen sometime in February unless the legal process sustains the family's position.

There are 30 states that now have laws mandating life support for pregnant women in vegetative states or coma.  The Munoz case is different because this is not about a vegetative state as she has been declared legally dead.  This is a case of State law being interpreted to mandate a corpse be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus.  The potential life of the fetus over rides both the mother's and the immediate family's right to determine a medical course of action.  Like 29 other states, Texas has determined that it's best interests lie in supporting the right to life of the fetus.  Unfortunately, only the State of Pennsylvania has agreed that they will take on the financial burden of supporting the fetus in these cases.  The other 29 are not so supportive.  Imagine that.

When I first read the story of Marlise Munoz I had this instant recall of the Axlotl tanks from Frank Herbert's Dune series.  I was appalled to be honest, that under the guise of fetal rights, Texas Law had created Herbert's scenario, but according to the LA Times, this is not the first time deceased women have been kept on mechanical life support to continue a pregnancy.  The outcomes of these efforts are not particularly good given the percentage of miscarriages.  The article offers no information on the mental and physical status of the children who were successfully born and lived past one year, nor is their any information concerning how the decision was made to keep these pregnancies going.  

While both of these cases have their disturbing elements, it is the Munoz situation which really angers me.  I don't care how one chooses to defend the Texas State Law, what this case illustrates for me is that women are legal slaves to their uterine processes even beyond their death. That is just wrong.


  1. The axolotl tanks came to my mind also.

  2. I've been following the TZ case more closely. My question is: Just how entangled with the Catholic bishops is this so-called public hospital? My follow-on: Absent any Catholic association, just how profit-oriented is it?

    I'm disturbed that I've become so cynical.

    I've spent some time reading the comments of the various news articles on the topic. It is starling how many people are so invested in women becoming mothers no matter what the costs that they will insist the the specific woman in question would OF COURSE have agreed to this deviance if only she just knew about the possibility of her baby having a chance at life. A possibility however faint or slight it might be. And as for quality of life - that's just right out the door. These people insist that they know better than the immediate family of the woman in question... Is there any sense of proportion or humility left? I ought to just swear off reading comments...

  3. Texas has some strange notions in their laws, somewhat like the laws of a stubborn, blind, ignorant King who robbed people of the freedom to make their own informed medical decisions for themselves with consultation with their doctor. Talk about the government butting in to people's private matters. The Munoz case is one for the books. This to me is such a breach of the freedom of conscience and an abuse of power by the State against the people. This does not serve the people. It is tyranny of an unjust law over the right of the freedom of conscience of the people.

    The lawyers make tons of money with these type of cases that restrict & regulate people of their own freedom. It is a disturbing and awful law that the hospital is honoring in the Marlise Munoz case. The law & the hospital should be honoring the decision of the deceased and of her family. Who is going to pay for this hospital bill? What is the condition of the fetus? And, good question, Colleen, what are the statistics in these sort of cases in terms of the viability of this fetus forming normally under such man-made intervention to sustain a corpse that is deemed a patient. This is so sad they are holding a dead corpse hostage, along with her entire family who are hostages to this inhumane treatment of their loved one. Their rights are being ignored. The State has become a big bully in this case. I really feel for the Munoz family.

    For a State that doesn't seem to wink or flinch at all at the chance to conduct the death penalty on so many of its citizens, it sure is weird that sustaining a corpse for a fetus is even an issue. Seems psycho and a plot in some strange tale, such as you have noted. It is downright creepy. The notion of playing God certainly does come to mind when it comes to this Munoz case and also the death penalty.

  4. The 'of course she would have done anything to give her baby life' line of reasoning is pure projection. As for quality of life, if that mattered at all, if life after birth mattered even a little bit, Pennsylvania wouldn't be the only state willing to bear the costs of the medical care.

  5. Fran, we must all never forget that Government is not to butt into people's lives and force morality on them unless they are pregnant, women in general, minority males on death row, or gays.

    The Munoz case is disturbing for all kinds of reasons, but I'm sure it will be feted and cited ad nauseum in today's pro life march in DC. Perhaps these marchers could be so nice as to take up a collection to pay for the costs of this macabre promotion of life.

  6. How could it not for anyone who has read the Dune series? I think Frank Herbert was making a very serious point about the end point of the thinking about women in certain patriarchal cultures. It is frightening to think this end point is currently being played out in Texas.

  7. Oh, the hypocrites are marching today. I had not heard a single thing about it until now.

  8. Hello Colleen, I hope 2014 finds you and everyone one else here doing well.

    Some points of disagreement:
    The law is a reflection of the will of the people, legislated by those who govern due to democratic processes. I find it curious that so many normally in favor of democracy not don't like this specific outcome of it, but prefer a more authoritarian approach.
    Is this, possibly, an example of "Democracy for me, but not for thee"?

    The fact that Marlise is not a patient isn't disputed. The patient in this case is the unborn child.

    The intent of the Texas law is to protect unborn children. The term "fetus" is a descriptive one; it identifies a stage of human existence. It does not intimate a stage of pre-human existence, non-life, or non-personhood. This unborn boy or girl is a separate human entity; for example, the woman doesn't have two brains, two spinal columns, two noses or four eyes, nor does she share a gene pool with the child. She contributed to the child's genetic makeup, but the child is in and of herself/himself a unique human being and not a part of her (the mother's) body. Neither is the fetus a "potential" life; it is a life. The child is growing; growth is not possible of dead organisms. The child has human DNA, not chicken DNA etc., and this DNA is self-determining. For example, the mother's body does not determine how large the child would be (under normal circumstances) at birth, the child's genetic code actually does, etc.

    Many people complain about states not taking on the financial burdens of raising unwanted children. These concerns are unfounded. While Pennsylvania has explicitly stated it will care for these orphans; other states, like Texas, care for them implicitly. Not too far from John Peter Smith Hospital in Ft. Worth one will find dozens of state supported agencies whose mission is to take care of just these children. This even excludes adoption agencies, which are quite numerous. I know because I have lived in the DFW Metroplex for over 30 years. I was confirmed and served as an acolyte at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Downtown, just a few streets over from JPS hospital, for many years.

    this is an interesting case with respect to those in favor if abortion rights, who believe that fathers have no right to be a part of the decision making process, because in this case they all now seem to think the father should have every right to make it. This dichotomy seems to suggest a double standard that supports, not the right to choose (after all, no one in that camp seems to think the child should ever be given a choice), but a singular choice, that being the death of an innocent, albeit unwanted, child.

    Innocence, by the way, is what differentiates abortion from Capital Punishment. Justice demands the punishment fit the crime. When I reflect upon the 55 million unborn children who have been killed since Roe v. Wade (just in this country) I can't think of a single criminal among them. Not so among the Texas Death Row population.

  9. I agree, they should take up a collection to pay for all the costs involved, for the choice these pro lifers have tyrannicaly made against the wishes of this family. All hospital bills & other expenses should be paid to the Munoz family for the pro-lifers butting in to other peoples private business. The so-called pro-lifers are hypocrites otherwise. They like to play "God" over the lives of others, then they should do the godly thing & pay up or shut up.

  10. And that goes for all such cases that pro-lifers decide they are the spokesmen for God & feel entitled to rule over women and can even take possession of our uterus even after we're dead.

    What a horror story the pro-lifers conceive and give birth to against ordinary people!

  11. Smartuckus, we are discussing Texas, a unique electorate. It is not indicative of the US in general. Besides, the hospital was the one who determined they would interpret the law the way they wanted. This is not a decision of the people, by the people, or for the people.

    By law the fetus is not the patient. The patient is the 'mother', and yes, your interpretation is the one the hospital uses. It's not the way the law was initially written. The 'patient' in the original law refers to the mother.

    "but the child is in and of herself/himself a unique human being and not a part of her (the mother's) body." Not true. At this stage the fetus is a part of the mother's body, otherwise the mother would be buried and the 'fetus' growing pleasantly in a big petri dish.

  12. I wonder what the effects will be for this child gestating within her womb without the normal ebb and flow of hormones that would usually take place with the mothers emotions of laughter, tears, expectations and usual stresses that accompany and living sentient expecting mother? The whole scene seems utterly draconian, sureal and tragic...

  13. I had the exact same question which is why I was disappointed the LA Times article on the other such cases had so little information about the children who were actually born from this kind of situation.

  14. Democracy, yes. BUT [and this is a rather large but] there are constitutional limitations on the what the government is supposed to involve itself in and to protect the rights of minorities regardless of what the majority would like to impose. The government simply is not in most cases allowed to impose medical care that is not in accordance with a patient's consent. Ms. Munoz has not given consent to the regimen [can't call it medical care] being imposed upon her body by the hospital. Her husband is legally [remember this part of the democratic process] entitled to make those choices for her in the event that she can't make them herself. This is not about his rights, it is about her rights to be heard in the manner the civil law allows.

    And if you can't trust your spouse with your welfare in this manner, divorce him/her. I wasn't thinking about this in my late teens/early 20s. But something I am realizing now in my early 50s.

  15. Michele Lovell KerbyJanuary 23, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Attorneys for the Munoz family have lreleased a statement about the condition of the fetus, but don't read it unless you're pretty tough. It's quite graphic, and the fetus' condition is dire.

    Of course this will make no difference to the prolifers. If it is unfortunate enough to be born alive, I wonder if any of them would be willing to adopt it, or help pay the medical bills involved?

    Prolife my ass.

  16. Thanks for the update. I suspect there will be a miscarriage before there is a live birth, which seems to be the normal outcome in these cases this early in the pregnancy.

  17. Update on the Munoz case.


  18. Operation Rescue and Judie Brown of ALL have given their two cents on this very sad case, and of course, they want to keep Marlise Muñoz on life support indefinitely. This strikes me as particularly ghoulish.

  19. Interestingly enough, he modeled Jessica Atreides on his own wife, Beverly.