Why the Dad Has No Say in Tragic Texas Brain Death Case

A terrible dilemma over the fate of a pregnant young mother throws a harsh light on the cost of the abortion debate.

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The heartbreaking saga of pregnant, braindead Marlise Munoz has sparked an outcry and opinions from people of all beliefs and political persuasions. But the one voice that should count in what happens to the fetus she was carrying apparently has no sway. That voice belongs to the kid’s dad.

Munoz, 33, was found brain dead on her Fort Worth Texas, kitchen floor from what doctors think is a blood clot on her lungs. Unbeknownst to her family, she was 14 weeks pregnant. (Pregnant women are at greater risk of developing blood clots, although it’s unclear the two events  were related.)

After the hospital discovered she was pregnant, doctors said they were not permitted by Texas law to turn off her life support, even though Ms. Munoz had previously indicated she did not want to be kept alive under such circumstances. About half of U.S. states do not allow life support to be withdrawn from a pregnant woman.

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The hospital’s actions are also in opposition to her husband, Erick Munoz and both of the woman’s parents.  “All she is, is a host for a fetus,” her father, Ernest Machado, 60, a retired cop, told the New York Times. “I get angry with the state…Why are they practicing medicine up in Austin?”

Aft first Ms. Munoz’s situation seems like a thorny moral question. Now that the mother has lost her ability to make her choices about the future of the fetus known, who has the most claim to make decisions about its fate? Should nature just take its course? Is it the state’s responsibility to step in?

The obvious answer is that the decision should be in the hands of the person who would be that child’s father. He will be the only extant biological parent  should the baby make it to full term. This is particularly poignant in this case: it’s not clear whether the time that Ms. Munoz spent without oxygen to her brain, or if not moving for most of the pregnancy will damage the fetus.  And if the baby is born and is impaired in some way—doctors say they will know more at 24 weeks gestation— it will be Mr. Munoz who will be primarily responsible for her or his care, in addition to raising the toddler that the couple already had, all as a single dad and a widower. Yet he has no say here.

Men have been protesting their disenfranchisement in decisions around their offspring for some time. In 2005, sociologist Dalton Conley—no foe of abortion— attracted a lot of criticism for an opinion piece about why he’d like a right to choose too. “When men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life,” he wrote. “If both parties willingly participate then shouldn’t both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?”

In 2006, Mel Feit of the National Center For Men undertook a crusade he called a Roe v Wade for Men.  He contended that men who didn’t want to have a child and made reasonable efforts to avoid it should at minimum be able to opt for a “financial abortion” that would liberate them from any responsibility for the baby. In this case, the father is facing significant health costs in parenting a potentially disabled child and a grieving toddler.

This is ultimately one of the unintended consequences of the abortion battle. Because the two sides of that debate are so sharply divided,  grey areas become no-go zones. For the pro-choice movement, it’s entirely a woman’s right to choose, because the fetus is a part of her body and cannot live without her. For the pro-life movement, the fetus has its own personhood and has as many rights as any individual from the moment of conception and is therefore offered the same protection the state offers any other of its citizens. In either case, the father is merely a catalyst, the maganese dioxide of this chemical reaction, something that has to be there for the event to take place, but serves no other purpose.

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Most people do not live at the outer poles of the abortion debate. They’re somewhere in the middle, where the logic isn’t always completely rigid. While very few would argue that a man should be able to force a woman to have a baby she does not want, at the same time most people would also expect a man to provide for a biological child even if he did not want it. We need these seemingly contradictory truths to coexist.

That pretty much means that dads have a lot of responsibility but very few rights. And in situations like the one in Texas, a father doesn’t get a say in the fate of the fetus currently gestating in the womb of his dead wife. On the face of it, that’s simply wrong.