DEATH AND THE LAW — The Tragedy of the Pregnant Dead Woman

No one said the field of bioethics was an easy one.  About to begin semester II of my course conducted at Cardozo Law School in NYC it is powerfully apparent that the issues under discussion are everpresent, highly emotional, charged with fundamental concepets of law, ethics, morality, religion  that are deeply felt and hotly contested. 

 In this case  Marlise Munoz, the mother,  is brain dead.  Her family, her functional health care proxies have decided that she would not have wanted to be maintained on futile life support.  The Texas hospital fought the families decision to terminate life support because she is pregnant and Texas law mandates that life support not be discontinued under such circumstances. In this particular case the fetus has been determined to be grossly abnormal and not viable.  But the world of legal bioethics holds firmly to the notion individual automony.  The recognition of the individual’s right to make their own medical decisions (or their proxy’s when they are incapable) is fundamental. The husband is such an individual.  His decision in his wife’s behalf is to discontinue life support.

 The Texas penal code has determined that and unborn child was “alive at every stage of gestation, from fertilization until birth.”  Of course the argument against this position is simply this– a fetus  requires a living mother to allow it to develop into a viable human being.

 Obviously their are strong emotional and deeply felt issues here.  I will never convince someone who believes aborion is murder to change their position.   Ideology should never be an excuse for not evaluating particular situations. If I have learned anything from my exposure to the field of bioethics it is exacty that.  The law and its ethical ramifications need to be applied to particular cases.  And real world situations are rarely black and white.

 It is reasonable to argue that termination of a viable fetus is murder.  It is equally reasonable to recognize that living tissue does not mean a living being.  A fetus may be “alive” from conception.  A sperm and an egg are “alive” as well.  Every cell of may body is “alive” as I type write now.  But is each cell a living being? And is everyone of my cells entiled to equal protection under the law?

Does a woman’s body commit murder every month when an unfertilized but living egg is ejected from her body?  And what about the millions of living sperm spilled without leading to conception?  Is this murder as well?  

And now to examine this particular case.  It is clear that her loved one’s have suffered enough.  Their decision to terminate life support would have been hers had she been capable of  making such a decision.  That is ultimately the criteria that the courts and bioethics supports.  

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