At this moment in a Fort Worth hospital, Marlise Munoz’s body is hooked up to machines that are keeping her body alive. Her brain function, her ability to communicate, or hold her child, or kiss her husband—all of those are tragically and irreversibly lost as the result of a pulmonary embolism she suffered the week after Thanksgiving. Marlise had expressed to her husband Erick—both of them were paramedics—that she never wanted to be kept alive this way. So why, despite her own clear wishes and those of her husband and her parents, is she still on life support?
Because Marlise was fourteen weeks pregnant when she passed.
According to The New York Times, more than thirty states place restrictions on when a hospital can remove life support from a pregnant woman, and a dozen, including Texas, have laws on the books that require hospitals to keep a woman’s body alive if she’s pregnant. The hospital must override the doctor’s judgment that she will not recover, the family’s wishes and even the expressed will of the individual herself. In the most tragic way possible, Marlise’s case is forcing us to confront the reality that in far too many places, women are literally seen in the eyes of the law as vessels whose primary function is to produce more offspring. Sound dehumanizing? That’s exactly what it is.
While some have compared Marlise Munoz’s case to that of Terri Schiavo, the woman whose case ignited a national firestorm in 2005 when her husband and parents fought over whether to remove her life support, this case is quite different. Her husband and her parents agree that Marlise’s wishes should be honored. No one with standing wants politicians to interfere in what should be a private family matter.
The other clear difference in this case is that it wouldn’t exist if Munoz weren’t fourteen weeks pregnant when she was pronounced brain dead. Her pregnancy trumped her right to make end-of-life decisions for herself with her family and have them enforced. This ranking of rights by the state is chillingly familiar to women and families around the country who have faced similar—albeit not so stark—situations.
I’m reminded of the case of Bei Bei Shuai, who faced prosecution in Indiana for feticide after she attempted suicide in 2011 when she was pregnant. She survived the attempt, but her fetus died in the process. So the state has chose to criminalize her pregnancy, declaring her a murderer for attempting to take her own life. Or Alicia Beltran, a pregnant Wisconsin woman who disclosed to her doctor that she had previously been addicted to pills. Although she proudly stated that she had been clean for a year, and confirmed it with a subsequent urine test, her doctor insisted that she go on anti-addiction medication. When she refused, she was arrested and taken to court, where she did not have a lawyer. However, one was appointed to represent her fetus.
Individually, the cases of Shuai, Beltran and Munoz are troubling. Together, they add up to a clear picture of how many politicians think it’s not only acceptable, but preferable, for women to lose rights once they become pregnant. And increasingly, state laws reflect that outdated paradigm.
Forcing women against their will to sit through medically unnecessary ultrasounds or state-mandated lectures full of misinformation in order to dissuade them from terminating an unintended pregnancy is common. And initiatives granting fertilized eggs constitutional rights will once again be on the ballot in Colorado, despite resounding defeats in prior elections. The way the state of Texas is treating Marlise Munoz is typical of the way the anti-choice movement treats women who become pregnant. Every restriction they push reinforces the idea that the state now has a substantial interest in preventing a woman from deciding what is best for herself and her family. Every obstacle, every ban, sends a powerful message to women that they are not in charge of their own bodies.
Lynn Paltrow at National Advocates for Pregnant Women has been tracking these laws for years and advocating for women to be full citizens in the eyes of the law. In 2010, she wrote a piece for The Huffington Post exposing the move towards “personhood” as part of this sinister agenda. She points out that recognizing the humanity of others has never before come at a cost to an entire class of people. When women were recognized as equal citizens under the Constitution, this did not come at a cost to men. She states that “efforts to legally disconnect fetuses and to grant them entirely independent constitutional status would not merely add a new group to the constitutional population: it would effectively denaturalize pregnant women, removing from them their status as constitutional persons.”
Marlise Munoz knew exactly what she wanted to happen to her if a tragedy like the one she suffered befell her, and she had the wisdom to share that information with those closest to her. All her family wants is to honor her wishes. We are fortunate enough to live in a country that values freedom and privacy—it is part of who we are as Americans. But a law that forces complete strangers to desecrate the dying wish of our loved ones shows us how far we have strayed from those very cherished values.
Note: An earlier version of this article indicated that the case of Bei Bei Shuai remained open. In fact, she pled guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served.