Pregnant woman's husband sues Fort Worth hospital

Erick Muñoz
Erick Muñoz, the husband of Marlise Machado Munoz, poses for a photo at his home on Jan. 3, 2014.

The husband of a pregnant Texas woman who, he says, has been declared brain dead is suing the hospital for denying his request to remove her from life support. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth has kept the woman attached to a ventilator since she was hospitalized in November, citing a provision of state law that says “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.” The woman’s husband and parents counter that she is legally dead under Texas law.

Erick Muñoz found his wife Marlise Muñoz, 33, lying on the floor of their home, unconscious, two days before Thanksgiving. Doctors believe she suffered a pulmonary embolism. While Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant at the time of her fall, she is now 21 weeks pregnant -- not yet at the 24-week mark that is generally considered the threshold for a fetus to survive outside the womb. 

While the hospital says a fetal heartbeat is detectable, doctors are unable to determine the health of the fetus, considering the oxygen deprivation from which Marlise suffered, as well as the electric shocks and drugs used in attempts to revive her.

"They don't know how long the baby was without nutrients and oxygen," Muñoz told WFAA in December. He told the affiliate that he does not expect a lot of public support for his decision, and that the law is preventing him from honoring his wife's end-of-life wishes. (The couple has a toddler son.)

“[John Peter Smith Hospital] has informed Erick and his family that Marlise Muñoz is brain dead, and as such, Erick asserts that she is legally dead under Texas law,” the lawsuit filed in state district court reads, according to the Dallas Morning News. The hospital is not confirming Erick Muñoz’s statements that his wife is brain dead, citing privacy laws.

“Despite the fact that Marlise is dead, JPS refuses to remove Marlise from the ‘life sustaining’ treatment, thus mutilating, disturbing and damaging Marlise’s deceased body, and further refusing to release it to Erick for proper preservation and burial,” the lawsuit says.

“Erick vehemently opposes any further alleged ‘life sustaining’ measures, surgery or treatment to be performed by JPS on the deceased body of his wife, Marlise. Erick has repeatedly expressed his wishes, and the wishes of Marlise, to JPS, to no avail. Defendants (including JPS) have instead consistently refused Erick’s requests to remove the ‘life sustaining’ treatments from Marlise’s deceased body, and continue to perform medical procedures on Marlise against Erick’s wishes,” the lawsuit says.

The hospital has kept Marlise on life support for the past seven weeks. Erick Muñoz and his wife’s parents say Marlise communicated her wishes on end of life care to them. Both husband and wife are paramedics.

 “We were all on the same page,” Marlise’s mom, Lynne Machado, told NBC News. “None of us want to be on life support.”

“The law says you cannot withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient — period,” hospital spokeswoman J.R. Labbe said, according to the Texas Tribune. “We believe the course of action we’re doing is the correct one.”

The controversy has sparked protests in Fort Worth and a national debate.

“We recognize the tragic and painful situation the family faces,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry's spokesperson Lucy Nashed told the Texas Tribune in an email. “We must also remember a young life is at stake here and that state laws protecting that life must be followed." 

But legal experts told the Associated Press that the law is being incorrectly applied. 

“This patient is neither terminally nor irreversibly ill. Under Texas law, this patient is legally dead," said Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the office of clinical ethics and palliative care for Baylor Health Care System. Southern Methodist University law professor Tom Mayo also told the Associated Press that "he did not believe the law applied in this case." 

No hearing was immediately scheduled Tuesday in response to the lawsuit.