State life-support laws fail to respect families’ wishes

In Texas, there is a law which states that a life-sustaining treatment cannot be removed from a pregnant woman, no matter her end-of-life wishes. In other words, if a woman is in a vegetative state and cannot function or survive on her own, she must be kept alive regardless of her own or her family’s wishes. This law was recently implemented when a woman fell into a coma in November. At the time, she was fourteen weeks pregnant. She was kept on life support until Sunday, when it was removed at the request of her family and by order of a judge. Marlise Munoz fell unconscious on November 26. On January 14, her husband filed a suit to have life support removed (BBC, “Texas hospital ends life support for pregnant Marlise Munoz” 1/26/14).

The hospital claimed that it was adhering to the law and stood by its decision to keep Munoz on life support, even though she was brain dead. In court documents, it was also revealed that the fetus was significantly abnormal due to oxygen deprivation. So even if Munoz had been kept on life support long enough to bring the fetus to term so that it could delivered by cesarean section, it may not have survived. The case brings to light an issue which has been hotly debated several times in recent years about whether patients who are brain dead or in vegetative states should be kept on life support.

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Terri Schiavo, whose life was the subject of a media frenzy in 2005. Just as her husband had successfully argued in court for her to be taken off life support, the media got hold of the story and began a life watch on the vegetative Schiavo, turning what should have been a quiet affair into a public monstrosity. For seven more years, her husband was forced to wait until finally, in 2005, 15 years after she first suffered cardiac arrest, life support was removed and she was allowed to die (CNN, “Terri Schiavo has died,” 03/31/05).

Unlike Schiavo, Munoz never “woke up” into a vegetative state. As her husband stated in the court documents, Munoz was legally dead—she had no brain activity and was kept alive solely through the efforts of the hospital. Her husband argued that because she was legally dead, she could not be pregnant any longer. His suit was successful, which is for the best. Munoz was a paramedic, who was familiar with the debate over end-of-life wishes. According to her husband, she would not have wanted to be kept alive by tubes and machines.

This raises anew the question about life support. Should a person, with no chance of functioning again, be kept alive? The “vegetative” state, as it’s called, is when a person is unable to support themselves. They cannot eat, breathe or speak of their own volition, but technically they are alive. Very often, family members request those persons to be taken off life support. To be in such a state is humiliating and degrading, and in order to maintain the person’s dignity and to reduce strain, the family will often request or sue to take the person off life support. As with the Schiavo case, this often results in public outrage, but why?

The masses seem to regard this as inhumane or cruel, and usually there is some argument that the person could wake up and be as healthy and functioning as they were. However, this implies some sort of miracle that is basically impossible, given our current medical limitations. Perhaps my biggest qualm with the Texas law which kept Munoz alive as long as it did is that it refuses to acknowledge not only the family’s wishes but the patient’s own as well. Even if the patient has explicitly said that they do not wish to be kept alive through life support, the pregnancy overrules her will. This seems to go against all the protocols and norms by which our society operates. Even though pro-life advocates likely support the law for the child, what if the fetus isn’t viable or would be severely abnormal? It is unlikely that these questions will be resolved soon. Legislation which deals fairly and respects the wishes of all parties isn’t likely to come soon. With all of this controversy surrounding the issue for the time being, laws like the one in Texas will probably remain in place, only to be challenged by the families of the patients and add heartache. Hopefully, a day will come when families need not fight for the dignity of their loved ones.

 

—Lily Elbaum ’16 is a prospective independent major.

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