HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pregnancy and Brain Death--The Case of Marlise Munoz

While Jahi McMath’s family had to fight to maintain treatment for their daughter after she lost brain function and was declared dead, Marlise Munoz’ family is fighting to stop her treatment after she lost brain function and reportedly was declared dead. Ms. Munoz is pregnant, and the hospital hopes that doctors there will be able to deliver her child after it becomes viable.

Should Ms. Munoz’ pregnancy make a difference? Many observers do not think so, and have denounced the hospital that is continuing to provide artificial ventilation and other intensive care (e.g., here and here). But there is no clear answer in ethics or law for cases like this. Reasonable people can differ, and reasonable hospitals can come down on either side of the question whether Ms. Munoz’ family can refuse further care on her behalf or whether the hospital should try to bring her fetus to term.

Indeed, courts have disagreed on the question whether even a mentally competent pregnant woman can refuse medical treatment that is needed to protect the health or life of her fetus. Some courts have sided with the woman’s right to decide; others have sided with the public interest in preserving fetal health. Courts have been especially willing to require treatment when it would not pose any risk to the woman’s health. If Ms. Munoz is dead, continued medical care cannot cause any harm to her health.

In some ways, the argument for continued care is weaker with a dead pregnant woman. In the cases involving mentally competent women refusing treatment, the women want to bear the child. They just want to do so without certain medical interventions. Ms. Munoz' family believes she would not want to bear the child at this point, and they do not want her to bear the child either. It’s not only unwanted medical treatment that is being imposed. There also is unwanted parenthood being imposed on Ms. Munoz and her husband.

Moreover, unlike the usual pregnancy, Ms. Munoz’ fetus will not become viable if left alone. All in all, this is a very hard case, and it is important to treat it as such. The interests of Ms. Munoz and her family are important, but so is the societal interest in protecting fetal life. Harsh condemnation of the hospital and its medical staff is not warranted.

[cross-posted at Faculty Lounge and]

Bioethics, End-of-Life Care | Permalink

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