The image of a completely brain dead, unmoving woman’s body being used to incubate a fetus is one which would seem more at home in a work of dystopian sci-fi than in real life. However, since November this has been reality for Texan woman Marlise Muñoz. She collapsed at age 33 after a blood clot in her lungs cut off the oxygen supply to her brain, and was pronounced brain dead in hospital after attempts to resuscitate her, leaving behind her husband and their 15-month-old son.
As Muñoz was 14 weeks pregnant at the time of her death, (still 6 weeks before the state’s abortion cut off limit) her body has been kept alive to incubate her unborn baby. This is sad/weird/upsetting enough, but it also directly opposes the wishes of her husband and parents. Furthermore, Muñoz had discussed her explicit preference for life support to be withdrawn in a scenario like this with her husband and family. A law passed in 1989, and amended in 1999, states that doctors in Texas may not withdraw “life-sustaining” treatment from a pregnant patient. However, Marlise Muñoz is not alive. She is clinically brain dead, and is being kept from death by a host of machines. Treatment, in my view, is not sustaining any kind of life at all.
Muñoz, involuntarily, is acting as a reservoir of blood, nutrition and vessels, a womb and placenta with legs. How the preferences and dignity of an adult woman do not take priority over a non-viable fetus is an issue that needs to be examined closely. This woman’s right to autonomy over her own body was lost when she became pregnant, and this is a trend echoed in even the most liberal North American states: only six allow women to write guidelines on their care which are guaranteed to be followed.
Pro-life activists, who believe that the rights of the unborn baby outweigh those of the mother, have unsurprisingly latched onto this case, arguing that keeping the fetus alive is of more importance than letting Muñoz die peacefully. The problem is that pro-life activists have shaped many laws around the medical choices of pregnant women. And, where the USA steps, often much of the world follows (see: twerking, Breaking Bad obsessions, increase in anti-abortion activism in the UK).
So, this isn’t something to dismiss as an ‘only in Texas’ scenario. Abortion activists have started holding vigils outside a branch of the British Pregnancy Advice Service, supported by extremist pro-life US based organisations. Nadine Dorries (an MP of I’m a Celebrity calibre), has campaigned for the legal abortion limit to be lowered. The anti-abortion movement may be small, but it is loud. Although we don’t have nearly the same level of religious fervor as the USA, we must not let their misogyny become accepted here. Pregnancy is not a disease, and pregnant women are more than capable of making their own decisions about their care. The damaging – and unfortunately widespread – treatment of pregnant women as mere vessels for the next generation is one we must approach with caution, as the case of Marlise Muñoz so pertinently shows.