Monthly Archives: January 2014

Trapped Between Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion: The Marlise Muñoz Case

This week Texas takes center stage, yet again, in the political battle over a woman’s right to choose. A Texas judge begins hearing arguments today in the case of Eric Muñoz v. John Peter Smith Hospital. At the heart of this latest controversy is the Muñoz family, who for the last eight weeks has been fighting to exercise the wishes of Marlise Muñoz. Their struggle began on the morning of November 26, 2013 when Muñoz collapsed onto the floor of her Fort Worth, Texas, kitchen after suffering what doctors believe was a blood clot in her lungs.  The clot rendered her motionless and left her brain without oxygen for over an hour before her husband discovered her. Paramedics transported her to nearby John Peter Smith Hospital where she was placed on life support and pronounced “brain dead” by her physician. According to the Muñoz family, before her collapse, Marlise, a former paramedic, made her wishes clear: She didn’t want to be kept alive on life support should the situation ever arise. However, her family was stunned to learn that the hospital would not comply with her wishes. At the time of her collapse, Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant. Hospital officials explained that in accordance with Texas state law, a pregnant woman cannot be removed from life support. Texas is one of more than two dozen states that restricts the removal of life support systems to a pregnant woman. That Munoz’s fetus is still weeks away from reaching potential viability outside of the womb is inconsequential in the face of a law that requires that “life-sustaining treatment” not be withdrawn from a woman in any stage of pregnancy.

While the outcome of this case will likely determine the scope of Texas women’s rights, the case also deserves attention for what it reveals about the rhetorical dimensions of medicine and science. As the family’s fate hangs in the balance, medical experts and social advocates, perched in a variety of political camps, grapple with the definitions of life and death. In 1968, following a public announcement of a committee of Harvard medical faculty in the Journal of the American Medical Association, death was officially defined as the non-functioning, or death, of the brain. Medically speaking, Muñoz is dead; because her brain is unable to maintain even the most basic of bodily processes, her vital bodily functions, including the pumping of her heart and respiration of her lungs, are sustained by a complex of medical devices. However, the Muñoz case reveals the rhetorical indeterminacies that animate even the most objective fields of inquiry: science and medicine.

Definitions do more than attempt to describe objective reality, definitions argue. As numerous rhetorical scholars have demonstrated, definitions not only shape the meaning of things, they also advance arguments and are politically inflected with personal, social, and institutional interests. Advances in medical science and technology introduce new ethical and rhetorical dilemmas and hence require reevaluation of operative terms. Indeed, the redefinition of medical death in 1968 came on the heels of the first successful heart transplant.[i] In the wake of the procedure, questions about the details of the donor’s death swirled. Had her heart stopped before doctors took her off of the respirator, asked reporters? This question points to the still widely held belief that the presence of a heartbeat indicates life. Ultimately, the case prompted public reflection on the meaning of death and exposed ambiguities in the medical definition of death. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1968 Harvard committee that convened to examine the “problems of the hopelessly unconscious” arrived at a definition of death that was extremely favorable to organ transplantation—not an unsurprising conclusion considering their stated goal of “advancing the cause of organ transplantation.” In most cases medical death is fairly easy to identify; brain, heart, and other bodily functions expire conterminously. Muñoz and similar high profile controversies, such as the protracted, thirteen-year battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, challenge our otherwise straightforward understanding of death.

Both the Muñoz and Schiavo cases illuminate how the act of defining something, even something as taken for granted as death, harbors political, as well as personal, consequences. As rhetorical scholar Edward Schiappa suggests, definitional ruptures occur when the status of a word is challenged. When advocates champion new definitions, they seek to alter the behavior of specific audiences.[ii] By defining death as brain death, for example, the 1968 Harvard committee sought to anticipate and quiet public fears surrounding organ donation. However, the definitional clarity achieved within the technical field of medicine has not eliminated disputes over the meaning of bodily death, as the Muñoz case makes clear, and medical notions of death often collide with lay understandings of bodily death. Indeed, the medical language itself invites misunderstanding. In medicine, though brain death is death, the term suggests an incomplete, or partial death—the failure of an organ, but not death of the entire organism, and “life support” suggests the opposite, that there is still life within the body. The language gives hope for recovery. Among those not trained in medicine, the absence of other vital signs such as a heartbeat or breathing, signify death. But in cases like Muñoz’s where two heartbeats exist in a body still capable of supporting fetal life, for some, the medical pronouncement of death appears inaccurate or premature.

For pro-life advocates, the relationship between life and the presence of a heartbeat is of great importance. Legislation newly introduced in several states by pro-life advocates seeks to outlaw abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Although the meaning of life, as opposed to death, generally takes center stage in the abortion debate, Muñoz’s case situates death at the center of this increasingly high-stakes contest. Weakening or complicating the link between the presence of a heartbeat and the unequivocal existence of life could potentially disturb the essential connection that pro-life advocates hope to build in the public imaginary between these two phenomena. For the Muñoz family, definitional ruptures are made painfully real. They accept the medical definition of death and argue that because Marlise is deceased, she should no longer be considered a treatment-receiving patient of the hospital and is, therefore, not subject to the laws prohibiting hospitals from denying pregnant women life-sustaining treatments. Marlise Muñoz’s body unmasks the oft hidden reality that, even within the technical spheres of medicine and science, the practices of naming and defining phenomena frequently exceed the boundaries of objective, apolitical observation and rather are informed by a range of personal and political agendas. Trapped in a definitional gray area, neither alive nor dead, Marlise Muñoz’s story serves as testament to the ways in which anti-abortion laws both constrain an individual’s bodily autonomy and grant sovereignty over an individual’s body to the legal and medical establishments.

[i] Mita Giacomini, “A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind? Technology and the Redefinition of Death in 1968,” Social Science and Medicine 44 (1997): 1465-1482.

[ii] Edward Schiappa, Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).

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Team Jack: What It Means to Be a Husker

Across year-end top ten lists from YouTube, USA Today, the Huffington Post, and others, Jack Hoffman has been making steady appearances. On April 6, 2013, Jack Hoffman, a seven-year old with brain cancer, donned a red #22 jersey to make a 69-yard touchdown during the Spring Game scrimmage for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Husker football team.

Since the Spring Game, the touchdown has garnered more than 8 million views on YouTube. It has been named the best moment by USA Today and the Big Ten and earned Jack an ESPY. While the touchdown itself allowed Jack to live his dream of playing with the Huskers, Jack and his family have also been using the opportunity to increase awareness of pediatric brain cancer and raise money for medical research. So far, The Team Jack Foundation has raised $1 million for cancer research through donations, the sale of Team Jack t-shirts and bracelets, and galas and bowling fundraisers.

More important than making the top ten year end lists, Jack’s touchdown is significant because it has been fully integrated into the values, traditions, and meaning of what it means to be a Husker fan. Jack’s touchdown, and the Husker football team’s welcoming of Jack, has become a way to define what it means to be a Husker, identify Husker values, and prioritize those values.

After the Spring Game, fans pointed to Jack to define what it means to be a Husker and to share pride in that identity.






Throughout these tweets, fans share their pride in the Nebraska football program and allude to something special being shown with Jack’s touchdown. Jeff Koterba articulates what these fans leave unspoken: that Jack’s touchdown showed Husker values at work.

Jeff Koterba cartoon for April 9, 2013 "Jack Hoffman Huskers"

Jeff Koterba cartoon for April 9, 2013 “Jack Hoffman Huskers”

In Koterba’s cartoon, Husker football players are no longer students, athletes, or celebrities, but rather are representatives of the values upheld by Husker Nation. The editorial states, “It’s easy in today’s high-stakes world of big-time college athletics to overlook things like sportsmanship, generosity and inspiration. All suited up Saturday in Memorial Stadium.” Indeed, the cartoon shows what happens when Huskers values are enacted through the Husker football players on the field and the Husker fans in the crowd roaring as Jack crossed into the end zone.

Husker fans like Sean Carey and Tyler Quick assert that these values are more important than any winning streak. For Huskers, sportsmanship, generosity, inspiration, hope, heart, and soul are prioritized over winning.



Andrew Dillon goes so far as to say that Jack Hoffman may be the greatest running back of all time. By doing so, he contributes to prioritizing the values Jack embodies over winning football games.


Andrew shifts the criteria for best running back from touchdown statistics to the values Jack embodies. Jack’s single touchdown may be more important than Mike Rozier’s 29 touchdowns and 2,148 rushing yards.

Husker fans have fully embraced Jack’s touchdown. For Huskers, it is a point of pride, shows what it means to be a Husker, and demonstrates that values like sportsmanship, hope, and inspiration are more important than winning. Of course, these values have long been a part of the Husker fan community. Tom Osborne, the Husker’s head football coach from 1973-1997, famously embraced a coaching philosophy that emphasized more than winning: a game well played. But after Tom Osborne stepped aside as head football coach, Husker Nation underwent a minor identity crisis.

Frank Solich was hired in 1998 and found moderate success, but after a 7-7 season in 2002 and firing many of the assistant coaches afterwards, only one third of Nebraskans polled thought his team “represented real Nebraska football” (Aden, pg. 57). When Bill Callahan took over in 2004, he introduced big changes that yielded minimal success: he gutted Nebraska’s walk-on program and introduced a west-coast offense. Callahan was eventually fired in 2007 (Aden, pg. 58). These Solich and Callahan years shook the foundations of Husker Nation. Nebraska’s current coach, Bo Pelini, has been unable to repair all the damage—indeed, such a task may take years.

This makes Jack Hoffman’s touchdown even more important for the Husker fan community. His touchdown provided an opportunity for fans, players, and coaches to recommit themselves to particular values and reconnect those values to Husker fandom. When Jack made that touchdown, Huskers were reminded of what it takes to be a Husker and why that’s so special.


by | January 9, 2014 · 11:39 pm