Battle Of Brain-Dead Pregnant Woman’s Body Transformed Her Family Into Political Activists

The Battle Over A Brain-Dead Pregnant Woman’s Body Transformed Her Family Into Political Activists

by Tara Culp-Ressler March 2, 2015   ThinkProgress

Munoz2

Erick Munoz, center, husband of Marlise Munoz is escorted by attorneys. AP Photo/Tim Sharp

National media may have moved on from last year’s battle over whether Marlise Muñoz, known in headlines as the “brain-dead pregnant woman,” was allowed to be released from life support in Texas last year — but her family hasn’t. In a new documentary, they’ll have a chance to talk about their journey from grieving loved ones to political activists, as well as the complex issues animating their cause.

Tentatively titled The Pregnancy Exclusion, the forthcoming documentary has been filming over the past year in the hopes of giving the family a different and more expansive kind of platform.

“After January, when Marlise had been taken off life support, it was suddenly like — poof! — the story was over. But they felt like they had been through the wringer and their story was not over,” director Rebecca Haimowitz told ThinkProgress. “It’s a story that deserved to be given more attention, and shown in a way that delves into all the complexities of the issue and really humanizes it.” Haimowitz is currently working on raising money for the film’s production costs.

It’s no wonder the story captured national attention at the time. The Muñoz family waited two months before they could bury Marlise’s body, an act of closure that was denied to them because Marlise was pregnant when she died. After she suffered a massive blood clot and was pronounced brain dead, the hospital refused to take her off the respirator — citing an obscure state law that stipulates Texas may not remove “life-sustaining treatment” from a pregnant woman, even if that goes against her end-of-life wishes. Although Marlise was legally deceased, officials wanted to keep her hooked up to machines until the fetus that she was carrying could be delivered.

The family’s saga went on for weeks, as Marlise’s husband and parents told the press how painful it was to watch her body slowly decompose as she remained breathing with the help of a ventilator. Eventually, a federal judge ruled in the Muñozes’ favor, determining that the hospital could not apply the law in this situation because Marlise was already dead. One year later, however, the controversy over the rights of pregnant women is being renewed.

Just last week, a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill in direct response to the Muñoz case that would appoint legal representation for fetuses in future disputes over whether pregnant women should remain hooked up to life support. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Matt Krause (R), says his proposal will “give the pre-born child a chance to have a voice in court.” If the measure advances to a legislative hearing, the Muñoz family is planning to testify against it.

Marlise’s relatives are also readying legislation of their own. Before Texas’ legislative sessions ends on March 13, they’re planning to partner with a different lawmaker to announce an effort to change the current law regarding pregnant women’s end-of-life wishes.

The competing legislation could dredge up the same issues that arose over the high-profile battle for Marlise’s body. Reproductive rights proponents condemned the hospital’s actions as frightening and dehumanizing, decrying Texas for using a dead woman’s body to incubate a fetus, while anti-abortion groups lamented the fact that the federal judge didn’t fight to protect the unborn child.

But the issue doesn’t fall neatly along the traditional battle lines in the abortion rights debate. Marlise’s family members have always maintained that their quest to honor her end-of-life wishes wasn’t “about pro-life or pro-choice.” They said Marlise never wanted to be hooked up to machines, and they wanted to honor her memory — and say goodbye.

Haimowitz agrees, and says that’s why she was compelled to focus on the case. She was interested in using the documentary format to bring more nuance to the complicated questions surrounding bodily autonomy, pregnant women’s rights, and the far-reaching consequences of laws that are framed in terms of fetuses.

“I think a lot of people, when they hear about this case, they tend to think it’s a really black or white issue. But actually, one of the biggest questions this film asks is — who do you think should have the right to make this choice?” Haimowitz said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about the film who start off by saying, I want you to know I’m pro-life, and I don’t believe in abortion, but I feel really strongly that the government overstepped its bounds in thinking it could make this choice for this family.”

Haimowitz is hoping to finish her project next year, and is optimistic that it might spark more conversation about the issue of gender-based discrimination in advanced directive laws. Right now, more than 30 states have a “pregnancy exclusion” in their policies governing wills, advanced directives, and end-of-life care. These laws ensure that women don’t have the same freedom to plan for their deaths as men do, because their wishes may be invalidated if they become pregnant.

“The security that people are given by being able to write wills, make out advanced health care directives, make plans for their families is very important,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told ThinkProgress. “It’s one of many laws that really make it clear that there really is a second-class status for people who have the capacity for pregnancy.”

Paltrow’s organization closely tracks the impact of fetal harm laws on women. In addition to pregnancy exclusion laws, there are other ways that carrying a fetus makes women more vulnerable to gender-specific legal scrutiny. Overly broad “fetal protection” or “unborn victims of violence” laws allow states to prosecute pregnant women for activities that allegedly harmed their pregnancy, like using drugs or attempting suicide. In states with these laws on the books, unexpected health events like miscarriages or stillbirths can put women at risk of being charged with doing something to provoke the pregnancy loss. In 2013, Paltrow and her colleague Jeanne Flavin published a study that confirmed these laws are being used not to protect pregnant women from crimes committed against them, but rather to target those women themselves for prosecution.

Many Americans simply aren’t aware that these policies exist, according to Paltrow, and are really surprised to discover that so many states don’t have to honor a pregnant woman’s end-of-life wishes. Cases like Marlise Muñoz’s are bringing more awareness to the controversial legal precedent of discriminating against people who become pregnant, as well as providing a powerful illustration of the ways in which laws that target women can end up hurting entire families.

Haimowitz echoed that sentiment. She wasn’t aware that so many states had pregnancy exclusion laws on the books until the Muñoz case unfolded in the headlines. “The idea that the state could have that control over someone’s body, even over their dead body, was just shocking to me,” she said.

As the information becomes disseminated more widely, Americans are increasingly motivated to action; in addition to the upcoming legislation in Texas, lawmakers in Wisconsin have already proposed a bill to repeal the pregnancy exclusion in that state’s advanced directive policies. Haimowitz, who interviewed Paltrow for her forthcoming film, hopes her documentary might be an agent for that type of change.

“I think a good documentary film will really humanize a social issue in a way that few other things can,” she said. “Next year is an election year and I think people should be talking about this issue, and I think a documentary would be an excellent vehicle to get them talking about it again.”

What to Do When ‘I Do’ Is Done

What to Do When ‘I Do’ Is Done

LGBT activists and funders are debating the movement’s post-marriage priorities.

By Peter Montgomery  The American Prospect  February 14, 2015

Equal Rights

Equal Rights

In the year and a half since the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, federal and state courts have been overturning laws against marriage by same-sex couples at a dizzying pace, sometimes more than once in a single day. Giddy activists have joked about the challenge of keeping color-coded marriage equality maps up-to-date. News stories about gay couples marrying in places like Oklahoma, Utah, South Carolina, and Idaho are now so common they hardly seem surprising.

With the widely shared expectation that the Supreme Court will soon return to the issue of marriage and may strike down marriage bans nationwide, LGBT leaders find themselves asking a question that would have seemed improbable just a few years ago: What should be the priorities of the LGBT movement once legal marriage equality has been achieved?

The most likely candidate for the kind of coordinated, national- and state-level strategy that fueled the marriage equality campaign is a push to get all LGBT Americans covered by laws barring discrimination against them in employment, housing, health care, and public accommodations. Brutal persecution of LGBT people around the globe, often with the collusion or encouragement of American anti-gay activists, is another growing concern. Those issues are likely to draw support from across the ideological spectrum of LGBT organizations.

Some movement strategists also want to address the effects of economic inequality and institutionalized prejudice on the lives of LGBT people. Efforts to move those issues to the center of LGBT activism, however, may run up against another current: the well-funded effort to make LGBT equality more palatable to Republicans and other conservatives.

Of course, while marriage equality is a reality in 35 states and Washington, D.C., it is not yet a done deal nationally. Lawyers are still staying up all night writing and filing briefs. Equality advocates are still sparring rhetorically, legally, and politically with anti–marriage-equality religious and political leaders who are fighting to the bitter end. And even if the Supreme Court overturns remaining bans and all 50 states turn blue on marriage equality maps, Navajo equality activist Alray Nelson wants it to be known that people living in more than 500 tribal nations will still lack marriage rights.

Still, with those cautions noted, the end does seem to be in sight, and that has LGBT funders and leaders looking ahead, considering what lessons can be drawn from the marriage equality campaign, how to keep LGBT activists and supporters engaged in the movement, and where to direct the energies and resources that have poured into campaigns for marriage equality. “I believe it’s not about pivoting from marriage,” says Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson. “It’s about harnessing the marriage work and success to getting success on other fronts.”

One important accomplishment of the national conversation about marriage is that it has had a humanizing impact on how many Americans view LGBT people, couples, and families. The marriage movement has been “a powerful vehicle to express the shared humanity of LGBT people,” says Janson Wu, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a Boston-based legal group that has played a key role in both the marriage equality campaign and the broader LGBT equality movement. The resulting advances in overcoming prejudice should support progress on other issues facing LGBT people. “Marriage vocabulary is powerful, connective vocabulary that helps transform people’s understanding,” says Wolfson.

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation, agrees that marriage equality campaigns encouraged a humanizing dialogue about LGBT people. The downside, he says, is that marriage has so dominated public conversation that people who aren’t intimately familiar with the LGBT community may think it is the beginning, middle, and end of what the community needs. In reality, he says, “marriage equality will affect a fraction of the LGBT community, and a fraction of a fraction of that movement’s needs.”

The Philosophical and Political Divide

What are those community needs? In October, longtime LGBT strategist Urvashi Vaid received a Spirit of Justice award from GLAD. Vaid ran through a set of issues that are barriers to full-lived equality for many LGBT people, including poverty, racism, misogyny, violence, immigration policies, policing, and detention. While organizations have been working on all those fronts, she said, the LGBT movement lacks sufficient focus on many of these issues, despite the fact that women make up half the LGBT community and people of color a third of it. “The question that confronts the LGBT movement today,” she said, “is whether we are willing to retool our movement to push for the redistribution of economic resources and political power that is needed to change the lived experience of LGBT people in all parts of our very diverse communities.”

Just a couple of weeks later, after Republican victories in the midterm elections, Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, posed a very different question. “This is really a time of choosing for LGBT advocates on the left,” Angelo told the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson. “Do you support the left agenda, or do you actually support equal rights for Americans? Those who fall in the latter category are going to be the ones who are going to be com[ing] to the table with Republicans and find[ing] solutions, ways to pass things, like employment protections for LGBT individuals, that also reach consensus among Republicans.”

The philosophical and political divide reflected in these two approaches, sometimes framed as assimilation versus liberation, is as old as the LGBT movement itself. “The tension between the equality frame and the liberation frame has been present since the moment of Stonewall, if not before,” says Andrew Lane, executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation and advisory board chair of the Movement Advancement Project. In recent years, as the movement has focused on gaining access to institutions such as marriage and the military, some progressive advocates have been frustrated about the lack of attention given to less conventional goals.

Doubts about the marriage equality campaign have been somewhat muted by its successes. But some advocates fear that rhetoric used in the marriage campaign could make it harder to ensure that people in less traditional, nonmarital relationships have legal protections. Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law and author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, supports marriage equality but says marriage “doesn’t solve anything for people who aren’t married, people who don’t want to get married, or people who have their lives organized around relationships that don’t resemble marriage.” She worries that some of the campaign rhetoric about the unique nature and importance of marriage could make it harder, once marriage equality is achieved, to assert the need to protect all forms of family.

Wu and Vaid both say the movement can and must do both equality and liberation work, and identity politics and progressive organizing. But time and resources are always limited, and the pre-existing fault lines within the LGBT movement may become more visible once marriage is no longer dominating the conversation.

Will Money Talk?

These fault lines could be exacerbated by another characteristic of the marriage equality movement: the emergence of major conservative funders such as hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and activists such as former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, who helped get the Republican votes necessary to pass marriage equality legislation in New York.

Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to Singer’s American Unity Fund, says the involvement of conservative funders and activists has had “a profoundly positive impact” by changing the perception among Republicans that LGBT equality is only an issue for those aligned with the left. He says that while more than 230 Republican state legislators have stood for the freedom to marry, only a small number have lost their seats. Center-right lawmakers no longer need to see support for LGBT equality as a death knell for their career.

But that’s just one piece of the picture. LGBT journalist Michelangelo Signorile has noted that Singer “backed some of the most anti-gay politicians—and defeated others committed to full LGBT equality—by pouring millions into superPACs and the Republican Governors Association.” Signorile worries that publicity focused on Singer’s support for a handful of pro-equality Republicans may be aimed at making moderate Republicans feel better about voting for the GOP. Meanwhile, he wrote in August, “Singer is undermining LGBT rights—and all progressive causes—by helping opponents of equality win more House races and helping Republicans win control of the Senate.”

Cook-McCormac says the involvement of center-right funders and activists “has fundamentally changed the way the gay rights movement does business.” He means helping achieve bipartisan cooperation on pro-equality legislation. But others worry about the potential that donors could push the movement’s broader agenda to the right. That’s a valid fear, says Get-EQUAL’s Heather Cronk, because money always comes with strings. Urvashi Vaid says of Singer that it is “outrageous to ignore the fact that he is virulently anti-choice and raised millions to oppose the most LGBT-supportive president we have ever had.” She acknowledges that coalition politics is partly about tactical relationships and opportunistic work but is clear that she does not view these conservatives as spokespeople for her or the broader movement.

Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way Foundation. 

Jon Stewart Skewers Anti Marriage Officials

Jon Stewart Skewers Right-Wing Officials for Their Astonishingly Backward Take on Gay Marriage

No, legalizing gay marriage does not mean everyone will start marrying their relatives.

By Allegra Kirkland  AlterNet   February 12, 2015

Jon Stewart screenshot (Comedy Central)

Jon Stewart screenshot (Comedy Central)

It’s only natural for prejudiced people to dig their heels in when confronted with sweeping change. Despite the fact that gay marriage is now legal in 36 states and Washington, DC, political officials and judges in solid-red states are doing anything they can to prevent LGBTQ residents from obtaining full civil rights.

In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback issued an executive order to remove legal protections from lesbian, gay and transgender state employees, meaning they can now be harassed or fired based on their gender identity. Jon Stewart’s response: “This being Kansas, I guess Brownback clicked his heels three times and said, ‘There’s no place like homophobia.’”

Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has ordered the state’s probate judges not to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, even though a federal judge ruled the state’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional. “Huh,” Stewart said. “So an Alabama official is circumventing a federal ruling in order to restrict the civil rights of a minority population. I guess he was thinking, ‘Hey! That Selma movie was a hit.’”