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UNION: Dylan and Robyn Benson.
Handout
UNION: Dylan and Robyn Benson.

Death and life

Life | State laws and difficult choices confront families of brain-dead mothers

On Feb. 8 Iver Cohen Benson was born at 28 weeks, with doctors pronouncing him healthy and strong. Six weeks earlier, doctors had declared his mother Robyn, 32, brain dead due to cerebral hemorrhaging. Iver’s father, 33-year-old Canadian Dylan Benson, had kept his wife’s body on life support to allow the baby time to grow and have a chance to live. On Feb. 9 Benson approved removing life support for his wife. 

Benson blogged about his experience on a website that has garnered hundreds of comments from well-wishers around the world: They said they were proud of him and offered advice on everything from creating toys with pictures of Iver’s mom to where to get breast milk. One cab driver brought him homemade lasagna. Benson also set up an online fundraiser to help with Iver’s medical expenses. Donations have far surpassed the $36,000 goal, with $188,000 contributed so far.

Two weeks earlier, a Texas tragedy came to a different end when a judge ruled that a pregnant, brain-dead mother could be taken off life support. Marlise Munoz was 13 weeks pregnant with her second child when she collapsed in November 2013. Firefighter Erick Munoz said his wife would not have wanted to be on life support, and asked to have her removed. But doctors at Fort Worth’s John Peter Smith Hospital said they couldn’t remove the life-sustaining care because Marlise was pregnant, and doing so would violate a Texas law.

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The law states, “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient.” ABC News reported the judge’s determination on Jan. 24 that the law “doesn’t apply to Munoz because she was already legally dead.” In Texas, death is legally defined as “the irreversible cessation of the person’s spontaneous respiratory and circulatory functions,” according to the Munoz family’s legal filing.

‘On Saturday evening, my beautiful and amazing son, Iver Cohen Benson, was born. Iver is healthy and is the cutest and most precious person I have ever met.’
—Dylan Benson’s blog

By that time the preborn baby, whom Munoz named Nicole, was at 22 weeks gestation. Doctors said more weeks in utero would increase the baby’s survival prospects, but she could have very serious health problems. Nicole died after doctors removed her mother from life support on Jan. 26. Munoz family attorney Heather King told reporters, “This was a sad situation all the way around. … Erick Munoz can now move forward with the process of burying his wife.” When reporters asked a sorrowful Munoz for his thoughts on the ruling, he barely answered, “No comment.”

Joe McIlhaney, a pro-life leader and founder of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, told me, “If the mother is brain dead when 13 weeks pregnant, the baby has a much greater chance of a catastrophic deprivation of oxygen or food than if the event happened when the pregnancy is 22 weeks along. The baby would be more susceptible to damage. … Keeping the mother ‘alive’ that long allows more time for ‘mistakes’ being made in the complicated job of keeping her ‘alive.’”

McIlhaney said he knows of no statistical studies on the health of preborn babies in this extremely rare situation.

—Sarah Padbury is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

Sarah Padbury
Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.

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