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Pregnant, brain-dead woman at center of legal fight between hospital and family removed from life support

Brain Dead Pregnancy 1.jpg

Erick Munoz stands with an undated copy of a photograph of himself with wife Marlise and their son Mateo, in Haltom City, Texas.ap

A Fort Worth, Texas hospital has removed a pregnant, brain-dead woman from life support after agreeing to comply with a judge's order, her lawyers say.

"Our client, Erick Munoz, has authorized us to give notice that today, at approximately 11:30 a.m. central time, in accordance with the order of the 96th District Court of Tarrant County, Texas, issued Friday, January 24, 2014, Marlise Munoz's body was disconnected from 'life support' and released to Mr. Munoz.," Heather King and Jessica Janicek said in a statement. "The Munoz and Machado families will now proceed with the somber task of laying Marlise Munoz's body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered. May Marlise Munoz finally rest in peace, and her family find the strength to complete what has been an unbearably long and arduous journey." 

The hospital said earlier Sunday that it would remove life support from Munoz following a judge's order that it was misapplying state law to disregard her family's wishes.

J.R. Labbe, a spokeswoman for John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, issued a statement Sunday that says the hospital "will follow the court order" issued Friday in the case of Munoz.

"From the onset, JPS has said its role was not to make nor contest law but to follow it," the statement says. "On Friday, a state district judge ordered the removal of life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Munoz. The hospital will follow the court order."

Judge R.H. Wallace had given the Fort Worth hospital until 5 p.m. Monday to comply with his ruling to remove Munoz from life support, which Erick Munoz says is what his wife would have wanted.

She was 14 weeks pregnant when her husband found her unconscious Nov. 26, possibly due to a blood clot.

Both the hospital and family agreed before Wallace's ruling that Marlise Munoz meets the criteria to be considered brain-dead -- which means she is dead both medically and under Texas law -- and that her fetus, at about 23 weeks, could not be born alive this early in pregnancy.

The case has raised questions about end-of-life care and whether a pregnant woman who is considered legally and medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus. It also has garnered attention on both sides of the abortion debate, with anti-abortion groups arguing Munoz's fetus deserves a chance to be born.

Munoz described in a signed affidavit Thursday what it was like to see his wife now: her glassy, "soulless" eyes; and the smell of her perfume replaced by what he knows to be the smell of death. He said he tried to hold her hand but can't.

"Her limbs have become so stiff and rigid due to her deteriorating condition that now, when I move her hands, her bones crack, and her legs are nothing more than dead weight," Munoz said.

But the hospital argued it was bound by Texas law that says life-sustaining treatment cannot be withdrawn from a pregnant patient, regardless of her end-of-life wishes.

Legal experts interviewed by The Associated Press have said the hospital was misreading the law and that the law doesn't have an absolute command to keep someone like Munoz on life support.

Larry Thompson, a state's attorney arguing on behalf of the hospital Friday, said the hospital was trying to protect the rights of the fetus as it believed Texas law instructed it to do.

"There is a life involved, and the life is the unborn child," Thompson said.

But on Sunday, the hospital said it would respect the judge's order and back down.

"The past eight weeks have been difficult for the Munoz family, the caregivers and the entire Tarrant County community, which found itself involved in a sad situation," the hospital's statement says. "JPS Health Network has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.