Counsel for Marlise Munoz, the brain-dead, pregnant woman kept on life support against her family’s wishes, said on Wednesday that nonparty experts now characterize the developing fetus as “distinctly abnormal,” adding further ethical quandaries to the case that is currently making its way through the Texas court system.
"Even at this early stage, the lower extremities are deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined,” attorneys Jessica Janicek and Heather King wrote in a statement. “The fetus suffers from hydrocephalus. It also appears that there are further abnormalities, including a possible heart problem, that cannot be specifically determined due to the immobile nature of Mrs. Munoz's deceased body.”
Munoz, who was incapacitated by what doctors believe was a blood clot on Nov. 26 last year, has suffered irreparable brain damage and is currently being kept alive by a number of life-preserving instruments at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. A paramedic in life, Munoz had previously filed a so-called Do-Not-Resuscitate order, which bars doctors from using cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or life support technology. However, hospital officials say their physicians and staff are precluded from honoring the order, as a pregnant patient cannot be deprived life support under the Texas Advance Directives Act.
"Quite sadly, this information is not surprising due to the fact that the fetus, after being deprived of oxygen for an indeterminate length of time, is gestating within a dead and deteriorating body, as a horrified family looks on in absolute anguish, distress, and sadness," the statement added.
Pregnant and Brain-Dead
The attorneys’ statement comes about a week after Munoz’s husband Erick filed a lawsuit asking a district judge to review the hospital’s use of the little-known statute. Although the initial hearing is still a few days away, the case has already begun to attract the attention of law and ethics experts, whose majority opinion appears to bolster the family’s claim.
"This patient is neither terminally nor irreversibly ill," Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the office of clinical ethics and palliative care for Baylor Health Care System, told reporters earlier this month. "Under Texas law, this patient is legally dead."
Similarly, Tom Mayo, a professor of law at the Southern Methodist University, said he didn’t think the statute cited by the hospital applies in this particular case, as they’re dealing with a dead body rather than a pregnant patient. He added, however, that the hospital’s unwillingness to honor the Do-Not-Resuscitate order may not be part of some pro-life agenda, but rather a way to hedge themselves against third-party litigators. Should a judge find that the statute does trump the order on file in this case, failure to act accordingly could result in civil and even criminal liability for the hospital.
Speaking to The Associated Press, hospital spokesman J.R. Labbe appeared to confirm this, as he underscored the hospital’s intent to follow the proper procedure. "This is not a difficult decision for us,” he said. “We are following the law."