“Marlise’s Law”: Protecting the Autonomy and Dignity of Brain-Dead Pregnant Women

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
Guest Blogger

On March 12, 2015, Texas Representative Elliot Naishtat (Austin) filed HB 3183, which would repeal the Texas law that currently prohibits pregnant women from exercising their advance directives.  The existing statute includes the following language:  “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.” The bill strikes this sentence and would allow health care providers and medical institutions to honor a woman’s wishes about end-of-life care.

The bill is known as “Marlise’s Law,” named for Marlise Muñoz of Fort Worth, Texas, who was kept on mechanical support for two months after she was declared brain dead in 2013. Muñoz collapsed in her home in November 2013 when she was 14 weeks pregnant. She was declared brain dead two days later but John Peter Smith Hospital said it was legally prevented from removing life support because she was pregnant.

Muñoz’s family said that she had been clear she never wanted to be kept alive on life support. Her family eventually obtained a court order allowing Muñoz to be taken off a ventilator. The family supports the bill and hopes it will prevent other families from having to go through their experience during a time that is already tragic, painful, and emotionally-draining.

Representative Naishtat’s bill opposes HB 1901, filed by Republican Representative Matt Krause (Fort Worth), which would strengthen the existing law by appointing attorneys for the fetus of brain-dead pregnant women.

Marlise’s Law recognizes a woman’s autonomy and dignity that does not disappear the moment she finds out she is pregnant.  As stated by Representative Naishtat, “Being pregnant should not prohibit a woman from having her personal decision respected. The law should reflect the consideration a woman puts into planning the treatment she wishes to receive, or not receive, when she is no longer able to express herself. Planning for end-of-life care is a deeply personal decision-making process for all persons, including those who may be pregnant.”

Michele Goodwin

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a renowned scholar, advocate, and author who has devoted her career to uplifting the voices, social conditions, and rights of women and children around the globe. A widely cited legal authority in constitutional law, health law, and women’s rights, her writings have been consulted by courts, legislators, government agencies, and civil society organizations. She has advised or given testimony before Congress and state governments as well as the United States’ Uniform Law Commission on privacy, the regulation of the human body, and reproductive health.

One thought to ““Marlise’s Law”: Protecting the Autonomy and Dignity of Brain-Dead Pregnant Women”

  1. What would have happened if the child was viable outside of the womb. I would think the mother would have been kept alive artificially until the baby could be delivered. If I were a judge that would be my decision. The news reports I read said they named the child in utero, but I guess from what I could tell the baby died along with the mother.

    This is a difficult issue of course. Does it come down to who pays all the bills to keep the mother alive. The Feds or the state should pay.
    Could they have kept the mother alive long enough to deliver a healthy child?

    Ms Whelan your treatment in this blog leaves me with many questions. One is how were you chosen to write this article as a “guest blogger.”

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