Musing about Munoz

This guest post is part of The Bioethics Program’s Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

by Jeffrey R. Spike, Ph.D.
Professor of Ethics and Samuel Karff Chair at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, UTHealth, the Academic Health Science Center for the University of Texas at Houston

Now that the legal and emotional drama has ended, it is a good time to think about what happened.

First, the legal and political forces in Texas showed a little more restraint than similar ‘pro-life’ forces in the Schiavo case.  Once a judge ruled that the Texas statue (TADA) did not apply, there was no appeal.  While less than a rock solid legal precedent, the ruling and lack of appeal should curtail future cases from proceeding down this path—hopefully in any state that has written a ‘pregnancy exclusion’ into their advance directives law.

Second, sad as the conclusion is, I doubt many people feel like two people died when the ventilator was stopped.  Rather, we have an interesting contrast that defines when a person’s life exists: the fetal life was not yet a person, and the deceased woman’s life was over and she was no longer a person.  No person died when they turned off the ventilator.

This interpretation helps us see why it was wrong to analyze the case as a situation where there once were two persons whose lives we hoped to save, and then only one person was left whose life we hoped to save.

Of course religious language likes to imbue objects with spiritual qualities.  It can make one sound deep, like a prophet.  But it can also mislead.  The terrible tragedy in this case occurred 6 weeks ago, on November 26.  All we have accomplished by keeping this pregnant woman in the ICU is to prolong the tragedy.

The one thing missing from every account was any ethics consultation service involvement.  Perhaps, like many hospitals, JPS has an ethics committee in name only, and there was never any ethics involvement.  In that case, the most important lesson might be the one that the Quinlan court taught us in 1976: do not go to court, keep these decisions at the bedside, and if you need help, ask for ethics involvement.


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