This is post is part of The Bioethics Program’s ongoing Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases, which I've organized, and is cross-posted from the symposium. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.
Had the hospital not relented and removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz's body, could the Munoz fetus have been brought to term, or at least to viability? And if so, would the resulting child have experienced any temporary or permanent adverse health outcomes? Despite some overly confident commentary on both "sides" of this case suggesting a clear answer one way or the other—i.e., that there was no point in retaining the ventilator because the fetus could never be viable or was doomed to be born with catastrophic abnormalities; or, on the other hand, that but for the removal of the ventilator, the "unborn baby" was clearly on track to being born healthy—the truth is that we simply don't know.
Before getting into the limited available data about fetal outcomes in these relatively rare cases, a bit of brush clearing. The New York Times juxtaposed reports about possible abnormalities in the Munoz fetus with the hospital's stipulation about the fetus's non-viability in ways that are likely to confuse, rather than clarify:
Lawyers for Ms. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was “distinctly abnormal” and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem.
The hospital acknowledged in court documents that the fetus was not viable.
Whether intentionally or not, the nation's newspaper of record implies — wrongly, I think — that the hospital conceded that the fetus would never be viable because of these reported abnormalities. In court, the hospital and Erick Munoz stipulated to a series of facts, including that Marlise was then 22 weeks pregnant and that "[a]t the time of this hearing, the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable" (emphasis added). The hospital conceded nothing at all about any fetal abnormalities. In short, the Times, and many other commentors, have conflated "non-viability" as a function of gestational age with "non-viability" as a way of characterizing disabilities that are incompatible with life. As I read this stipulation, the hospital was not at all conceding that the fetus would never have been viable, had the ventilator remained in place. Rather, given the constitutional relevance of fetal viability, the hospital was merely conceding the banal scientific fact that the Munoz fetus was, at 22 weeks, not currently viable. There is nothing surprising in the least about the hospital's "concession" about "viability" in the first sense, above: 22-week fetuses are generally not considered viable.