When is someone dead? Muñoz case challenges medical ethics

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by JOBIN PANICKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @jobinpnews

WFAA

Posted on January 15, 2014 at 8:08 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 29 at 10:27 AM

FORT WORTH — Marlise Muñoz continues to be on life-saving treatment and is now 21 weeks pregnant. Her family says she is brain-dead and on life support at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.

Doctors said they couldn't honor the family's wishes to disconnect the machines keeping her alive because there is state law protecting the unborn fetus.

Dr. Ron McManus, who teaches medical ethics at Texas Wesleyan University, says it's a complicated issue, adding that it will only get more complicated the longer Muñoz is on life-support.

"I've often heard it said, 'In the worst times in our lives, we have to make the best decisions,' and that often happens in medicine," McManus said.

He added that the state law now protecting Muñoz' unborn fetus doesn't seem unethical on its face, but says it is up for interpretation.

According to a 2011 study by the Center for Women Policy Studies, there are 11 states besides Texas that automatically invalidate a woman's advance directive if she is pregnant: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Contrast that with five states where a pregnant woman's wishes in an advance directive are honored: Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Vermont.

The Muñoz family has hired local attorneys to fight to get Marlise off life-support. McManus said the court may have to work quickly and answer that difficult question: is Marlise Muñoz legally dead?

"Is the goal of medicine to treat the dead, or is the goal to treat those who are alive... with care?" McManus asked.

The family says Erick Muñoz continues to visit his wife on a daily basis. The family is now looking forward to fetal viability tests, which are scheduled for early February.

E-mail jpanicker@wfaa.com

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