Life Managing

The Muñoz family in happier times.

The Muñoz family in happier times.

In June of 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual conference in Dallas, Texas.  Aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and proselytizing against the evil Bill Clinton, the organization had one other item on its agenda: boycott the Walt Disney Company because of its new policy to offer benefits to the same-sex partners of its some of its employees

The day after convention-goers officially voted on the Disney boycott, the “Dallas Morning News” placed the story on its front page – complete with a color photograph of the assemblage holding up placards; their smug, arrogant expression displaying their true contempt for the company.

In the fall of 1995, Disney had joined a growing number of companies that took the bold step of instituting non-discrimination policies for its gay and lesbian associates.  That included offering identical benefits to the same-gender partners of these employees.  Because Disney catered so much to families, the move triggered a more vociferous response from right-wing politicians and their evangelical puppet masters.  It prompted some to malign Disney as the “tragic kingdom.”

Meanwhile, buried on page 3 of the ‘Metropolitan’ section of that same “Dallas Morning News” issue was a brief story on something I found even more alarming: approximately 40% of children in Texas at the time had no health insurance.  I literally stopped when I read that.  I presumed, in my naiveté about the human condition, that all infants and children were automatically covered by some type of health insurance.  The piece – all of half a page – highlighted a family who lived in a trailer park just outside Dallas.  I can’t remember the details, but both parents worked and had two kids.  The family was just one of hundreds across the state.  I looked again at the SBC gang on the front page and wondered if they were even aware of the trailer park family; a family that could barely take care of itself, much less go on a Disney cruise with untold numbers of homosexuals allegedly lurking behind the lounge chairs.

I thought about that situation again when the bizarre case of Marlise Muñoz arose.  Last November Muñoz, a 33-year-old paramedic, suffered an apparent pulmonary embolism at her home in Haltom City, a Fort Worth suburb.  Her husband, Erick, found her on the kitchen floor after she’d gotten up in the pre-dawn hours to prepare a bottle for their toddler son.  Two days later officials at John Peter Smith hospital declared Marlise brain dead.  Her husband and parents asked that she be removed from life support.  But, the hospital refused.  Marlise was about 14 weeks pregnant at the time, and the hospital cited a little-known state law, the Texas Advance Directives Act, that forbids the cessation of life-saving measures on a pregnant woman.  Passed in 1989, “Texas Statutes – Section 166.049: Pregnant Patients” is supposedly meant to protect the lives of the unborn.  It’s an adjunct to “Texas Statutes – Section 166.046: Procedure If Not Effectuating a Directive or Treatment Decision,” which addresses life support for individuals in comatose or vegetative states.

The usual cacophony of pro-life voices raised themselves in self-righteous indignation in support of the unborn Muñoz child.  Muñoz supporters reacted by pointing to a simple fact: the woman was brain dead.  If someone’s heart stops, it can be resuscitated with electric shocks; if the lungs collapse, air can be pumped back into them; if the kidneys cease functioning, the individual can be hooked up to a dialysis machine.  But, you can’t perform CPR on a person’s brain.  Once a person’s brain dies, that’s it!  There’s no coming back.  It’s why the brain stem is the first part of the human embryo to form.

People often joke about brain death.  I point out that it’s a symptom of many politicians and entertainment celebrities.  In fact, it’s almost a requirement among reality TV stars.  But, brain death is a seriously finite condition.

Yet, pro-life activists lined up outside John Peter Smith demanding the hospital do everything it could to save the life of Marlise Muñoz’s unborn baby.  And, the hospital was trying to do just that – pumping oxygen into the dead woman’s corpse.  Her flesh was beginning to rot, however, and her body was developing both external and internal sores.  Moreover, examinations of the fetus showed its lower extremities were so badly deformed no one could determine its gender.

Erick Muñoz finally resorted to legal action against JPS.  On January 24, State District Judge R.H. Wallace concurred and ordered the hospital to let Marlise go.  “Mrs. Muñoz is dead,” he wrote.  “Defendants are ordered to pronounce Mrs. Muñoz dead and remove the ventilator and all other ‘life-sustaining’ treatment from the body.”

JPS chose not to fight the order and removed Marlise from life support on the 26th; what was left of her body died five minutes later.  As a token of love and affection, Erick named the unborn baby Nicole, his wife’s middle name.  No longer held captive to a ghoulish medical experiment, Marlise’s family can now bury her and moved forward with their lives as best as possible.  Erick still has a toddler son to raise.

This entire imbroglio comes less than a year after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis launched an 11-hour filibuster against a law that imposed heavy restrictions on abortion providers in Texas.  It was a move that garnered international attention and propelled Davis to launch a bid for the governorship.  The Muñoz case and the Texas abortion law are related, albeit tangentially, because of that pro-life label so many ideological conservatives here and around the nation like to claim.

Pro-life advocates really aren’t pro-life – that is, in the truest sense of the term – they’re pro-birth.  For some perverted reason, they want to control human reproduction.  They declare that it’s for the good of humanity; a desire to give all babies a chance at life.  I suppose, however, they really just want more bodies to work in the fields and the factories, or to go to war so oil and energy companies can earn more profits.  If pro-lifers truly are in favor of life, they wouldn’t stand idly by as literally millions of people, including infants and children, go to bed hungry in this country every night.  While the evangelical crowd thinks they’re doing society a favor by protesting the perceived horrors of homosexuality, they ignore the real tragedy of the uninsured, which has grown exponentially since 1997.  Conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress were eager to invade Iraq in 2003, but have been slow in providing pay increases to military personnel.  We can expect that from a pack of old lawyers whose own pay and benefits are secure.

And, we can expect pro-lifers to holler in contempt that people like Judge R.H. Wallace don’t value human life.  Some are already publicly shaming Wallace and demanding his impeachment.  But, if the U.S. values human life so much, it wouldn’t boast one of the highest homicide rates among developed countries.  It wouldn’t tolerate 49 million Americans living with food insecurity (as of 2012).  Pro-life doesn’t mean a society fights like hell to allow (or force) a pregnant woman to give birth.  It means it fights for the welfare of all its citizens.  Life may begin at conception, but it doesn’t end when the umbilical cord is cut.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays

One response to “Life Managing

  1. The Munoz story from start to end was tragic. While JPS was not truly at fault, they also did nothing to help the family. The true fault lies with this terrible state you and I both call home. You are so right to call out the problem.

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