Dead or Alive? Women-and-Kids

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Image by Heather Ault

In November 2013, Erik Muñoz found his partner Marlise collapsed on their kitchen floor. After arriving at the John Peter Smith Hospital she was declared dead, but since she was fourteen weeks pregnant the Texas hospital refused to remove her from any “life sustaining” measures.

The health of her fetus superseded her advanced life directives and the wishes of her parents and partner. While dead, as per the Texas law, she was forced to “incubate,” as Erik stated, a nonliving entity, a fetus.

A high-profile legal battle ensued. Erik and her parents collected data that the fetus was impacted by oxygen deprivation and was most likely “deformed” and therefore eventually succeeded in convincing a judge to order the hospital to discontinue medical interventions, but not to rule against the law that required the hospital to keep her body tethered to machines after medical and legal death was declared. On January 26, 2014 Marlise’s body was disconnected from machines and her family was officially allowed to take her body out of the hospital.

This is not an anomaly: Approximately a dozen states have version of this law on the books prohibiting the termination of life support measures for pregnant women: dead or alive. Often identified as tactics of the personhood movement, other states have related laws or debates in progress criminalizing as forms of “child abuse” pregnant women who use drugs, who admit to using drugs, or in any way endanger or harm a fetus—knowingly or not. In 2013, after admitting previous drug use to her physician, a twelve-week pregnant woman in Wisconsin, Alicia Beltran, was arrested and sent to a residential drug treatment facility against her will and a lawyer was appointed to represent her fetus.

The message conveyed through the state’s engagements with Alicia and Marlise: a fetus counts as a person (unless the fetus is not “normal”). For pregnant women, particularly if they’re poor or nonwhite, a fetus is increasingly as, if not more, important than a woman’s right to privacy and to control her reproductive futures—living or dead.

Our local manifestations of the complex ways a punitive state distrusts women and regulates boundaries between women and children might appear be gentler but the ties are unmistakable. In our communities many struggle for the right to parent or are adjudicated as not fit, some negotiate impoverished access to exercise diminishing reproductive rights, and still others are admonished to embrace “natural” pregnancy, birth, or motherhood. Marlise and Alicia’s experiences are yet another set of painful reminders of how many, particularly cisgendered female bodies, are impossibly tethered to kids and the necessity of unpacking these flexible, and yet fragile, boundaries: women-and-children.