FORT WORTH, Texas (CNN) — A Texas judge ordered a Fort Worth hospital on Friday to remove a pregnant, brain-dead woman from respirators and ventilators.
Judge R.H. Wallace told John Peter Smith Hospital to act on his order by 5 p.m. Monday. The hospital could appeal or decide to remove Marlise Munoz from a ventilator and respirator before that deadline.
Erick Munoz, her husband, broke down in tears after Wallace ruled. He and other family members had been fighting the hospital so the body could be released to them for burial.
Munoz left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, but the family’s lawyers did speak out, including Jessica Janicek. She argued that John Peter Smith Hospital was “utilizing (Marlise Munoz’s) body as a science experiment.”
The judge did not rule on the constitutionality of a law regarding the treatment of a pregnant patient.
A breakthrough came when the hospital and the Munoz family agreed on crucial facts listed in a court document: that Marlise Munoz has “met the clinical criteria for brain death since November 28” and that “the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable.”
The woman’s husband repeatedly made these claims in his efforts to have her removed from the machines.
The wrenching story started with a pregnant woman found unconscious on her kitchen floor. In the more than eight weeks since then, lying supine in a hospital bed, the 33-year-old became the focus of an intense, emotional debate about who is alive, who is dead, and how the presence of a fetus possibly changes the equation.
Hospital spokesman J.R. Labbe said last month that doctors were simply trying to obey a Texas law that says “you cannot withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient.”
During Friday’s hearing in Fort Worth, representatives of the hospital — in this case, from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office — argued that state law was correctly applied.
But to Erik Munoz, his wife is not a patient because she is not alive.
He and other family members said the hospital should abide by her wishes — which weren’t written down but, they said, relayed verbally to them — and not have machines keep her organs and blood running.
Erick Munoz had contended doctors told him his wife “had lost all activity in her brain stem” and an accompanying chart stated that she was “brain dead.” He has further called her “nothing more than an empty shell” who should be left to rest in peace.
“Pregnant women die every day,” said Jessica King, another of the family’s attorneys, after the hearing. “They die in car accidents, of heart attacks and other injuries. And when they die, their fetus dies with them.
“It’s the way it’s always been and the way it should be.”
In an affidavit filed Thursday in court, Erick Munoz said little to him now is recognizable about Marlise. Her bones crack when her stiff limbs move. Her usual scent has been replaced by the “smell of death.” And her once lively eyes have become “soulless.”
“Over these past two months, nothing about my wife indicates she is alive,” Erick Munoz said. “… What sits in front of me is a deteriorating body.”
Husband: ‘Obscene mutilation of a deceased body’
The couple, two trained paramedics, had been awaiting the arrival of their second child.
Everything came crashing down around 2 a.m. November 26, when she was rushed to the north-central Texas hospital.
Once there, Erick Munoz said, he was told his wife “was for all purposes brain dead.” The family also says the fetus may have been deprived of oxygen.
In his lawsuit, Munoz claims subsequent measures taken at the hospital — and, in turn, the state law used to justify them — amounted “to nothing more than the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body against the expressed will of the deceased and her family.”
The family’s attorneys more recently said that Marlise’s fetus “is distinctly abnormal,” suffering from hydrocephalus and “deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined.”
“Quite sadly, this information is not surprising due to the fact that the fetus, after being deprived of oxygen for an indeterminate length of time, is gestating within a dead and deteriorating body, as a horrified family looks on in absolute anguish, distress and sadness,” the family attorneys said in a statement.
The hospital and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, which said it will defend the medical facility, did not offer the same level of detail as members of the Munoz family.
But earlier this month, Labbe told CNN that his hospital believed “the courts are the appropriate venue to provide clarity, direction and resolution in this matter.”
Late Friday, the hospital issued this statement: “JPS Health Network appreciates the potential impact of the consequences of the order on all parties involved and will be consulting with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office.”