Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is an "abnormal" fetus less important?

The case of Marlise Munoz presents a number of serious ethical quandaries related to life, death, pregnancy, and life support. If you haven’t read about it yet, you can do so here.  It is a very sad story, not only because of the unforeseen tragedy of the brain death of this young mother, but also because she was fourteen weeks pregnant at the time of her collapse. She was kept on life support by staff at John Peter Smith hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, because of a Texas state law requiring life-sustaining treatment for pregnant mothers. This is a sticky wicket indeed: should the mother be kept on life support in order to preserve the life of the fetus?

Yet in the CNN report also mentions another item, though with no comment on its significance: apparently, the fetus was “distinctly abnormal.” In a related report, CNN quotes a statement from the family’s attorneys:

Even at this early stage, the lower extremities are deformed to the extent that the gender cannot be determined. The fetus suffers from hydrocephalus. It also appears that there are further abnormalities, including a possible heart problem, that cannot be specifically determined due to the immobile nature of Mrs. Munoz’s deceased body.

How are we to understand the significance of this statement? At one level it is simply descriptive, but at another level, the statement seems to imply that removing Ms. Munoz from life support is more acceptable because the fetus is “abnormal.” I’ve not read or heard of anyone saying this directly, but why report on it if it doesn’t come to bear on the ethical decisions involved?  

Few people will admit this, but the prevailing ethos in our culture is that fetuses that demonstrate atypical traits are diminished in value compared to those that appear typical throughout the pregnancy. This says a great deal about how we understand human beings and their value. 

Update: NBC reports that the fetus is "not viable" at the present time. 

No comments:

Post a Comment