Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas Legislature.
Last winter, an Azle, Texas, family went through a horrible ordeal: They had to fight the state for the ability to take their deceased daughter off mechanical support. Her name was Marlise Muñoz, and she was a 33-year-old emergency medical technician and mother of one son, Mateo. She was also 14 weeks pregnant in November 2013, when she collapsed in the North Texas home she shared with her husband, Erick. Emergency room doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to revive her.
That was when the battle for a dignified death began, and Muñoz’s family members were thrust into a political debate they’d never asked to be part of. Because Muñoz was pregnant when she collapsed—though she could have still had a legal abortion at that time if she’d chosen to—John Peter Smith Hospital, a public county hospital, worried about falling afoul of a Texas law that says doctors cannot “withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” This, even though it meant going against Muñoz’s express wishes not to be kept on life support—something she’d discussed previously with her parents and husband.
A two-month legal battle in Tarrant County followed. Finally, in January 2014, the Muñoz family won the right to bury the wife and daughter they loved.
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Now, a conservative state representative says he plans to make the heartbreaking decision once faced by the Muñoz family even harder—or, perhaps, impossible.
Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) wants to appoint a “guardian ad litem” for fetuses of brain-dead pregnant people whose families wish to say a proper goodbye to their loved one without forcing the continued gestation of a pregnancy inside a legally and medically deceased body.
Krause hasn’t filed a proper bill yet, but he told the Dallas Morning News (DMN) earlier this week:
“You’ll hear what the family wants, and you’ll also give the pre-born child a chance to have a voice in court at that same time,” Krause said. “The judge weighs everything and he or she makes their decision based on that.”
Krause has already stuck his nose, unbidden, into the Muñoz family’s business—last year, as her husband and parents were struggling to say goodbye to Marlise, he told the media that because “sometimes” babies are born even when doctors say a prognosis is grave, the government should be able to force people to carry pregnancies to term. Even when they’re dead.
I tried to contact Krause for more details on the bill, but he didn’t return my calls. I wondered what he’d think about a guardian ad litem who, say, determined that it was in the best interest of a total stranger’s fetus for it not to be gestated. Somehow, I suspect that that’s not what Krause has in mind.
Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told me that to her, it sounded like Krause’s proposal “is not about a voice for fetuses; it is about inserting the state” into a private medical decision.
Because look: If anything, the existing law doesn’t give families enough leeway to make the decisions that are right for them. And if families want to make a go of gestation, they’re absolutely entitled to do so, and they should do so, if that’s what they think is best.
But this law? Is explicitly meant to drag grieving families into a court room unless they comply with the government’s desire to see a dead person gestate a fetus. It guarantees a legal battle for a family already going through a terrible time. If Krause ever calls me back, I’ll ask him if he intends to ensure pro-bono representation for families strong-armed into court, who will either have to lawyer up or surrender to a forced-birth nightmare.
Maybe Rep. Krause has good intentions. Maybe he’s so blinded by the babies!!!!1!1!!!1!!! that he can’t think straight. Maybe he’s truly incapable of seeing how cruel and mean-spirited this legislation would be. If so, he has to be willfully ignoring the very people who prompted him to concoct this monstrosity: the Muñoz family themselves.
Marlise Muñoz’s mom, Lynne Machado, told the DMN that she found Krause’s proposal insulting:
“To me that’s saying that my family was not looking out for the best interest of Marlise and the fetus,” Machado said. “We feel our actions and decisions were based on what was best for both of them.”
During their ordeal, the Muñoz family said repeatedly that they’d never wanted to become part of a debate about abortion, though many anti-choice lobbyists, advocates, and legislators—including now-Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—took the opportunity to try and shore up their anti-choice bonafides by commenting on Marlise’s case. “Pro-life” Internet commenters became vicious, calling Erick Muñoz a murderer and accusing him of being too lazy or selfish to raise a second child without his wife.
Abortion isn’t, and was never, the issue, the Muñoz family says; Marlise’s pregnancy was a wanted one, but it was unsustainable. Their daughter was dead. They wanted to grieve.
Before a Tarrant County court allowed the Muñoz family to take Marlise’s body off a ventilator—doctors said that the fetus inside her would likely not survive outside the womb, even if gestated to a point of potential viability—her mom told Rewire they were already preparing to “pursue and challenge this in Austin,” so that “no pregnant woman and her family have to go through what we have to go through.”
Now, they must fight. One battle, they’ve chosen: advocating to give pregnant people and their families the ability to make the private medical decisions that are best for them. The other, they never asked for: challenging a lawmaker who believes eggs, zygotes, and fetuses need lawyers to protect them from their own families.
Whatever happens, the Muñoz’s fight will be documented on film: The Pregnancy Exclusion, currently in the crowd-funding stage, will follow the family through their journey into the world of activism. The preliminary footage is very difficult to watch; the family’s courage is unbelievable.
Maybe we can get Matt Krause to watch it before he files a bill that will ensure nothing but heartbreak for Texas families trying to do right by their loved ones.