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Louisiana Proposes Using Brain-Dead Women as Incubators

Louisiana Proposes Using Brain-Dead Women as Incubators

It’s one of the most nightmarish ways for a pregnancy to end: with the death of the mother, leading to loss not just of the fetus, but also of a loved partner and companion.

Such tragedies are fortunately rare, and rarer still are cases in which women are declared legally brain dead, but can be kept functional with life support. Machines are necessary to perform bodily tasks, and patients require constant monitoring and treatment, but theoretically, it can be possible for a brain dead person to be kept “alive” for years, even though she has no brain activity and is clearly non-responsive with no hope of revival.

Typically, the use of life support after brain death is recommended only in cases where people want to wait for family members to arrive to say goodbye, or when someone is an organ donor, and hospital personnel want to keep the organs as viable as possible. In other cases, medical professionals typically recommend letting go, removing life support and allowing the patient to die naturally. But in some cases, that’s not what happens. In the case of Natalie Muņoz, for example, doctors compelled a family to keep a brain-dead woman on life support for weeks because she was pregnant, arguing that they should wait until they could deliver the fetus. Against the wishes of Muņoz and her family, the poor woman was kept on a ventilator in a hospital while a legal battle swirled around her.

Her surviving family members pushed people to have conversations about what to do in the event of brain death so they wouldn’t be surprised by such events, and it appears that some people are responding, but maybe not as intended. In Louisiana, new legislation would mandate that if a fetus is over 20 weeks gestation and a woman’s bodily processes can be “reasonably” maintained, she must be kept on life support until delivery of the fetus. The law would be just vague enough to create a lot of room for interpretation, and, if passed, would join similar legislation in other states used to deprive women of their basic right to determine whether they want to continue with treatment.

Such laws are offensive enough on their own. All patients should have the right to determine the scope and nature of their medical treatment, and to make advance directives in the event they can’t participate in their own treatment. Such directives should be honored by family members and medical personnel. Depriving women of their medical autonomy is an attack on their bodily autonomy — and laws like this women reduce women to the status of incubators, instead of treating them as whole human beings.

Furthermore, the necessity of such a law is highly dubious, even for those who believe that allowing a fetus to expire is murder. Women who are sick or injured enough to be brain dead and on life-support are likely not carrying viable fetuses — it’s possible the fetus is causing the complications in the first place, or that the nature of the injuries that caused the medical crisis also resulted in severe damage to the fetus. The fetus could be dead or dying, or it could face abnormalities incompatible with life, like brain damage so severe that it would be doomed within hours of delivery. Furthermore, long-term life support increases the risk of complications, as it requires a constant balancing act to prevent organ failure, monitor blood chemistry, and provide medications, some of which can cause birth defects of varying degrees of severity. Forcibly keeping a woman on life support wouldn’t, in other words, result in a live delivery in very many cases.

If a woman chooses life support and surgical delivery once the fetus is viable, and expresses that wish in advance, that’s her right as a patient. But it’s not something that should be forced on women, just as carrying a pregnancy should never be forced on a woman in any other circumstance. In this case, the law itself may be unconstitutional — but it would need to be taken to court for a challenge to determine that. In the meantime, women will suffer.

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Image credit: Victor

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301 comments

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8:15AM PST on Dec 14, 2014

Its a womans right to choose, & if she is incapacitated,
the husband 1st, then her parents have right to choose!!

its amazing, in light of death & demise, to bring forth life, but not at cost of deevastation to family / prolonging the agony in court, and aslo an unwanted child to e cared for by the state... as fathers & family may be unable to tend the child, which is a permanent reminder , prolonging the grief life long...

9:31AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

This is taking things way too far and sort of underscores what happens when bible wielding conservatives are allowed to have control over women's bodies.

9:25AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

I am soooo confused!!! Why would God, in HIS, not Her, compassionate wisdom even allow a pregnant mother to die thus causing the death of that fetus thing??? Is my God so evil to allow this to happen??? And what about my church??? Why would the church and its most prized possession, the Inquisition, even think of sending pregnant women, soooo many times over and over again, to be burned at the stake, knowing that the fetus would die along with her??? Oh, evil of evils!!!

Let's not pretend that evangelicals or Catholic Bishops have some special sacred insider knowledge of what God really desires. They only have a book, a book that Christian theologians have already realized is NOT a permanent, unchanged, and infallible scripture, the actual and unassailable word of god.

7:08PM PDT on Sep 4, 2014

besides who do you want to make your family decisions ? you and your doctor or the politician ?

7:07PM PDT on Sep 4, 2014

wouldn't it be more responsible to use republician politicians to do that? then you could give the family the time to grieve and you wouldn't be treating the women in such a fowl manner . I mean what harm would it do to the politicos ? they would still be able to walk around saying the same ridiculous stuff they say . telling the same lies as they always do . and attacking women as always they do .remember this is the party that wants to take healthcare away from people , some of who have never had it , just to satisfy their own lust for power . and if they ever get in and control both houses then you can kiss the U S good bye . at least the one you know now ,which maybe it's not as great as it once was , but , well it's really to scary to go into now .

7:52PM PDT on Jul 19, 2014

It is always bad news when politicians get between patients and doctors. As a neonatal nurse, while this situation is not common, it is not unheard of. While a 20 weeker cannot survive at this point, if healthy and not compromised, maintained in utero for at least another 10-14 weeks, this baby has a good chance at survival. This would be a harrowing time for the father/husband and other family members, but unless the child was unwanted to begin with, discussions with all team members involved (and not mandated by politicians) could result in a healthy baby. Sad that it has resulted in this. This baby should be given a chance at life.

6:57PM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

I don't understand the repugnicans who insist on producing babies at ANY cost. Forcing a family to keep good ol' mom on life support for 4 months or longer just to spit out a baby that may or may not be healthy is really pushing someone else's beliefs down someone elses throat at a very sad time in their life. Some people may want closure; this could be considered torrture to them. Where are their rights when GOP is thowing their phony beliefs around keeping mom as an incubator. If mom agreed prior or if daddy wants to - maybe fine. But if it is against family wishes then NO.

These GOP pervs really want into women's crotches and they don't care how they get there. What is there, really, to be gained other than more rights to be taken from women.

This is really a sad day. Consider it now a modern day 1950.

5:23AM PDT on Jun 26, 2014

thanks this leaves alot open to talk about

10:24AM PDT on Jun 25, 2014

To some degree ALL politicians are idiots, but this is over the top!

7:38PM PDT on Jun 24, 2014

Maria L.,

You need some real help!!!!! Where is compassion for not just the DEAD woman, but her parents/guardians and family!?!?!?! If they cannot get the baby out right she is DEAD, then I am sorry, it will have to die with the mother!!!!!

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