The New Life Support Debate

The matter of when (and if) to terminate life support has long been a matter of debate among the medical community. Currently, patients and their families have the power to choose whether to remain on life support or to have it cut off, based on their medical situation.

But, what if the patient is in the early stages of pregnancy?  What happens to her right to choose in that scenario?

As a pregnant woman myself, I was surprised to first hear about the case of Marlise Munoz … a sentiment that later turned to distress and sympathy for the family, and finally a sense of dismay as the weeks turned to months. Mrs. Munoz was rushed to the hospital in November after suffering a blood clot in her lungs. Although she was brain-dead, the hospital refused to remove her from life support because she was 14 weeks pregnant, despite the requests of the husband and family.

Hospital

Hospital (Photo credit: José Goulão)

Instead of allowing them to bury their dead wife/daughter, the hospital forced the family to wait for two months – powerless – as the body of Mrs. Munoz was kept on life support to continue growing the fetus within. Not only was this decision incredibly painful for the family, but the fetus could not properly develop without a living mother to support the process.

During pregnancy, the feeling of coexistence is all-encompassing. What I eat and drink – the actions that I take in my daily life – all influence my baby’s development. A fetus cannot develop without the mother prior to 23 weeks, the time that medical science now considers ‘the age of viability’ – the earliest that a preemie can be born and hope to live with medical assistance.

So, if there is no mother to enable the fetus to grow beyond 14 weeks, it shocks and baffles me that the hospital would attempt to incubate a fetus through life support.  It is no surprise that the fetus was pronounced ‘not viable’ at 22 weeks, suffering extreme brain damage and deformations.

There are human rights – and legal issues – to be discussed here. If an American female can legally choose whether to deny life support and whether to terminate a pregnancy, why would she (and/or her next of kin) not be allowed to choose whether to deny life support and terminate a pregnancy at the same time?

I felt a huge sense of relief on Friday when a state district judge ordered the hospital to remove Mrs. Munoz from life support, thus allowing her to be buried in peace … finally giving her family the opportunity to stop fighting the hospital and begin the grieving process.

What was your reaction to the hospital’s decision to keep Mrs. Munoz on life support? Let us know your opinion by commenting below. 

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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.