What we can learn from the sad story of Marlise Munoz 

Respecting Wishes

I suspect we're all familiar with the tragic story of Marlise Munoz by now. Munoz was a pregnant woman who collapsed one evening and never recovered. In the past she'd made it very clear that she did not want life support in this kind of situation. And apparently in this situation there was no ambiguity: she was brain dead. Her body had stopped functioning without technological intervention. Although the hospital demanded that she be kept on life support, her husband Erick Munoz and her parents fought to have her wishes respected. Ultimately, a state district court said she must be removed from life support, and the hospital didn't appeal. On Jan. 26 she was removed from life support.

The reason she wasn't taken off life support immediately, and the reason this event got international attention, is because Marlise Munoz was pregnant. Hospital officials argued that they were adhering to a Texas law that prohibits medical officials from cutting off life support to a pregnant woman. Taking her off life support would mean that the fetus would be terminated.

I'm interested in the way this story is being told. I agree completely that Munoz's wishes should have been respected, and it's worth noting that she was only 14 weeks pregnant when she was declared brain dead. Even in South Carolina, it's legal to have an abortion at that time. This is a case of not forcing a woman to be, as one of Erick Munoz's attorneys said, a dead person "serving as a dysfunctional incubator." It's illegal to make someone donate their kidney, even if it would save the life of a person, so it should be equally forbidden to make someone donate her whole dead body to save the life of a fetus.

However, it's interesting how news articles and Munoz's attorneys repeatedly noted that the fetus had one or more disabilities, including hydrocephalus, deformities, and possible fetal heart problems. The attorneys and the news media kept repeating this information.

Why does this matter? Had the fetus been "normal," would keeping Marlise Munoz on life support have been the right thing to do? I suspect her family would have continued to argue that she should be allowed to die, the attorneys would have argued their case effectively, and the state court would still have ruled that she shouldn't be kept alive.

It seems to me that the repetition of the fetus's disability was a way of making Marlise Munoz's removal from life support more palatable to the court and the public. Simply put, our society is more comfortable with terminating a pregnancy because of fetal disability. Many states in which abortion is heavily restricted allow for exceptions in the case of fetal disability. In some states there's no abortion cut off when the fetus is disabled.

I'm not arguing that this shouldn't be the case. Not at all. My point here isn't to say we need to limit abortion rights. I think abortion should be legal. Period.

What I'm saying is that I don't think fetal disability should be the one exception. When abortion is illegal except in the case of fetal disability, these legal restrictions mean that women don't have control over their own reproduction. And it means that fetal disability is presented as unquestionably terrible. However, the belief that disability is always terrible is something I'd like us to question.

Marlise Munoz should have been taken off life support. Her pregnancy should not have been the reason to keep her dead body functioning. And the disability of the fetus had nothing to do with that.


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