Dallas — The husband of a brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman on Tuesday sued the hospital keeping her on life support, saying doctors are doing so against her and her family’s wishes.
The lawsuit filed in state district court asks a judge to order John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth to remove life support for Marlise Munoz, a North Texas woman who fell unconscious in November while pregnant.
Erick Munoz has said a doctor told him his wife is considered brain-dead. Munoz says that he and his wife are both paramedics and are very familiar with end-of-life issues. He says his wife had made her wishes clear to him that she would not want life support in this kind of situation. Marlise Munoz’s parents agree.
But John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth says it can’t follow Erick Munoz’s directive due to a state law that prohibits life-saving treatment from being denied to pregnant patients. Experts familiar with the Texas law say the hospital is incorrectly applying the statute because Munoz would be considered legally and medically dead.
Munoz found his wife unconscious in the early morning on Nov. 26. The family says it doesn’t know the exact cause of her condition, though a pulmonary embolism is a possibility. Marlise Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant at the time.
The health of the fetus is unknown. Munoz is believed to have been without oxygen for some time before her husband found her.
The hospital has cited a provision of the Texas Advance Directives Act that reads: “A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.”
Experts interviewed by the Associated Press, including two who helped draft the legislation, said a brain-dead patient’s case wouldn’t be covered by the law.
“This patient is neither terminally nor irreversibly ill,” said Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the office of clinical ethics and palliative care for Baylor Health Care System. “Under Texas law, this patient is legally dead.”
Tom Mayo, a Southern Methodist University law professor, said he did not believe the law applied in this case. He said the hospital would not have absolute immunity from a civil or criminal case if it went outside the subchapter referenced by the law, but noted “most medical decisions” are made without immunity.
“To me, the subchapter doesn’t require what they’re doing,” Mayo said. “It simply says that if you were to take the life support away, you’d be outside the subchapter. It doesn’t have an affirmative command in it that you must keep life support going.”
Hospital spokeswoman J.R. Labbe has said hospital officials stand by their decision: “This is not a difficult decision for us. We are following the law.”
Labbe did not immediately return an email message seeking comment on the lawsuit filing Tuesday.