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Pregnant, brain-dead Texas woman's case in court

By Nomaan Merchant

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 24 2014 12:07 p.m. MST

In this Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 file photo, Erick Munoz stands with an undated copy of a photograph of himself, left, with wife Marlise and their son Mateo, in Haltom City, Texas. Munoz’s attorneys said in a statement Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, that the fetus that Marlise Munoz is carrying has several “abnormalities,” including a deformation of the lower body parts that make it impossible to determine its gender.

Ron T. Ennis, Associated Press

FORT WORTH, Texas — Attorneys for a pregnant, brain-dead Texas woman's family will ask a judge Friday to let her be removed from life support, despite hospital opposition.

State District Judge R.H. Wallace will hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by Erick Munoz against John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. His wife, Marlise, has been on life support there since he found her unconscious in their Haltom City home Nov. 26.

Her family says the exact cause of her condition isn't known, though a blood clot is a possibility. Erick Munoz said his wife, a fellow paramedic, had clearly told him: If she ever fell into such a state, she was not to be kept alive.

Hospital officials contend they're bound by a state law prohibiting withdrawal of treatment from a pregnant patient. Several experts interviewed by The Associated Press have said the hospital is misapplying the law.

The case has raised questions about end-of-life care and whether a pregnant woman who is considered legally and medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus. It also has gripped attention on both sides of the abortion debate, with anti-abortion groups arguing Munoz's fetus deserves a chance to be born.

Munoz is carrying a fetus, now believed to be at about 22 weeks' gestation, that is "distinctly abnormal," attorneys for Erick Munoz said in a statement earlier this week, based on medical records they received from the hospital.

"Even at this early stage, the lower extremities are deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined," Heather King and Jessica Hall Janicek said, also noting the fetus has fluid building up inside the skull and possibly has a heart problem.

Spokeswomen for the hospital and the Tarrant County District Attorney's office, which is representing the hospital in the lawsuit, have declined to comment on the attorneys' statement.

Munoz previously told the AP he wasn't confident about the fetus' health. His wife was 14 weeks pregnant when he found her unconscious and is believed to have been without oxygen for some time.

"You know what kind of damage my wife sustained, and what kind of possible damage the baby inside her sustained," he said during an interview earlier this month.

Not much is known about fetal survival when mothers suffer brain death during pregnancy. German doctors who searched for such cases found 30 of them in nearly 30 years, according to an article published in the journal BMC Medicine in 2010.

Those mothers were further along in pregnancy — 22 weeks on average — when brain death occurred than in the Texas case. Birth results were available for 19 cases. In 12, a viable child was born. Follow-up results were available for six, all of whom developed normally.

In refusing to remove Munoz's life support, John Peter Smith Hospital has cited a Texas law that reads in part: "A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient."

But experts say the hospital is incorrectly applying the statute because Munoz is brain-dead and beyond any chance of recovery.

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