Family of Pregnant, Brain Dead Woman Files Lawsuit to Remove Life Support

The family of a pregnant, brain dead Tarrant County woman has filed a lawsuit against a Fort Worth hospital to pull her off life support.

In legal paperwork filed Tuesday morning, the family of Marlise Munoz asserts that she is legally dead and that John Peter Smith Hospital has kept the pregnant woman on "'life sustaining' treatment, thus mutilating, disturbing and damaging Marlise’s deceased body, and further refusing to release it to Erick [her husband] for proper preservation and burial."

Munoz has been on life support since being found unconscious in the early morning hours of Nov. 26 by her husband Erick. The family said it doesn't know why she lost consciousness, though a blood clot is a possibility. Both Marlise and Erick are paramedics who agreed they did not want life support should a situation such as this arise. Marlise Munoz's parents agree.

When she was found, Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant. The family has said they do not know the condition of the fetus. Marlise Munoz is believed to have been without oxygen for some time before her husband found her. Doctors have told Erick Munoz that they are monitoring the fetus, but Munoz has said he's uncertain about how healthy the fetus will be given his wife's condition.

"You know what kind of damage my wife sustained, and what kind of possible damage the baby inside her sustained," he said during a recent interview.

A 2010 article in the journal BMC Medicine found 30 cases of brain-dead pregnant women over about 30 years. Of 19 reported results, the journal found 12 in which a viable child was born and had post-birth data for two years on only six of them -- all of whom developed normally, according to the journal.

John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth said Texas law prevents them from withdrawing life-sustaining treatment and following a family directive when a pregnancy is involved.

Specifically, the Texas Health and Safety Code Section 166.049 states that "a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this sub-chapter from a pregnant patient."

In the lawsuit, the Munoz family asserts that an earlier part of the same code defines Marlise Munoz's condition as legally dead. 

Experts familiar with the Texas law say the hospital is incorrectly applying the statute because Munoz would be considered legally and medically dead.

"Marlise Munoz is dead, and she gave clear instructions to her husband and family -- Marlise was not to remain on any type of artificial `life sustaining treatment', ventilators or the like," the lawsuit said. "There is no reason JPS should be allowed to continue treatment on Marlise Munoz's dead body, and this Court should order JPS to immediately discontinue such."

The suit argues that the hospital's interpretation of Section 166.049 is "in complete conflict with other portions of the statute, makes no sense, and amounts to nothing more than the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body against the expressed will of the deceased and her family."

Additionally, the suit argues that Section 166.049 is unconstitutional and an "infringement on Plaintiff’s right to privacy pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Erick Munoz's lawyers, Heather King and Jessica Hall Janicek, also asked for an expedited answer from the court. No hearing was immediately scheduled.

Hospital spokeswoman J.R. Labbe directed questions about the lawsuit to the Tarrant County District Attorney's office, where spokeswoman Melody McDonald Lanier said attorneys were reviewing the case and declined to comment further.

That office serves as the hospital's legal counsel in many civil areas, including informed consent and state statute issues.

Labbe previously has said hospital officials stand by their position: "This is not a difficult decision for us. We are following the law."

Erick Munoz's lawsuit argues that his directives -- and the hospital's decision to not follow them -- no longer matter because Marlise Munoz is dead under Texas law.

The documents can be read here:

A date has not yet been set for the court case.

On Sunday, protesters took a stand alongside the family outside of the hospital as a show of support for the family.

NBC 5's Greg Janda and Associated Press' Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.

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