Tag Archives: medical futility

Marlisa Munoz, futility and artificial uteri

The case of Marlisa Munoz is a clear example of a futile medical treatment. Ms. Munoz was pregnant when she died a sudden death at age 33, a great tragedy for her husband, family and friends. Though Ms. Munoz was pronounced brain-dead, the hospital continued to put her on life support, and doing so against the wishes of the deceased’s husbands and her family, because she was pregnant.

Given the early stage of gestation and the fact that the fetus had suffered an oxygen shortage as result of the sudden collapse of his mother, it is widely believed that the pregnancy was unlikely to come to term or that the fetus would have an abnormal development. In either case the continuation of the life support of Marlisa Munoz is a futile exercise, since neither she or her child could be saved.

In most of the civilized world, the moment of brain death is nowadays considered as the moment of legal death. Because brain death is irreversible and according to modern science a functioning brain is a prerequisite for human consciousness. The only valid reason to keep a brain-dead body on life support is for the removal of organs for the purpose of transplantation.

A similar case of medical futility is putting babies with anencephaly, a rare condition in which a fetus does not develop a brain, on life support. Since such being is born without a brain, we can hardly speak of a “person”. Also in this case the most meaningful purpose of keeping such being on life support is for organ transplantation. Any other application, is a waste of expensive medical equipment.

Such cases of medical futility are unethical, because the deprive resources which could be used to treat people who can be saved. It does not make sense to use medical resources to save those who are already dead, while others are dying unnecessarily.

But let’s return to the argument the hospital used to keep Ms. Munoz on life support, until the court ordered to halt this treatment. They argued that they intended to save Ms. Munoz’ unborn child. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we assume that the fetus could be brought to term as a healthy child. Then it would be better if we had a machine, an artificial uterus, to which the fetus could be transferred. Thereafter we could his brain-dead mother let rest in peace. This would save the husband, family and friends of the deceased a lot of emotional distress and legal costs.