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The CEO of the Texas Hospital That Won't Take a Pregnant Woman off Life Support Was an Idealistic Democrat

José L. Castillo/UNT Archives

In Texas, a flashpoint of the abortion debate, a sad case has raised further questions about the rights of the mother versus her fetus. Marlise Munoz, 33, was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed in her kitchen, brain-dead from what doctors believe was a blood clot in her lungs. She had left behind instructions that she not remain on life support, but when her family tried to comply, the John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth refused. As The New York Times explains in a story in Wednesday's paper, the majority of states now have laws that govern doctors’ ability to end life support for terminally ill pregnant women, and Texas is one of 12 that have adopted particularly stringent measures. Texas may have the legal ability to make Munoz, in her father’s words, “a host for a fetus,” denying her rights and those of her family.

Then again, it may not. The case is complicated by the fact that the fetus may already be fatally impaired: Munoz may not have been breathing for over an hour by the time her husband found her in the kitchen. What’s more, experts told the Times that if Munoz is brain-dead, she is legally dead, and the hospital has no right to treat her as a patient. This suggests the hospital where Munoz lies on life support is, intentionally or no, interpreting Texas’s uncompromising law in an unprecedentedly invasive way. And yet, the president and CEO of the JPS Health Network, of which the hospital is the flagship, isn’t exactly who you would expect to push the ideology of the anti-abortion movement to its utmost. On the contrary, Robert Earley is an idealistic health reformer with a long history in state Democratic politics.

A longtime Texas Democrat

After graduating from the University of North Texas in 1983, Earley signed on to work as a legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Tom Vandergriff, who served in the House from 1983 until 1985. Like many yellow dog Democrats of his era, Vandergriff was no liberal: He introduced a “right to life” bill in the summer of 1984 (which went nowhere) and ultimately changed his party affiliation to Republican. Still, Earley ran for the Texas House as a Democrat when he decided to enter state politics in 1984. He won and served until 1995.

A pal of Rick Perry’s

Earley’s tenure in the state house overlapped with that of another eager young Democratic representative: Rick Perry. Perry, of course, would switch his affiliation to Republican in 1989 and go on to become a staunchly conservative governor and presidential candidate. Below, a youthful Perry (left) and Earley in 1985.

Texas State Library & Archives Commission

A growing voice in Texas health

When Earley assumed leadership of the John Peter Smith Hospital—the sixth-largest in North Texas—and larger health network in 2008, the facility had been accused of “filth, ineptitude, and callousness,” according to a profile in Dallas’s D Magazine. The rules he set for staff in his efforts to reform the place included “You must seek joy” and “Don’t be a jerk.”

Under Earley, JPS has won plaudits for its proactive stance on reproductive health, especially infant mortality and prenatal care. Last fall, it got a yearly $1 million grant from the state, effective for five years, to “provide services such as free cervical and breast cancer screenings as well as free contraception to uninsured women.” The hospital’s efforts to improve Texas’s dismal record on women’s health care are out of keeping with its ongoing infringement of a pregnant woman’s rights.

An outdoorsy dad

Earley portrays himself as a family man. In 2013, he told the Dallas Business Journal, “Like most smart men, I married up.” His wife is a veterinarian, and his daughter, Bryce, “is a wonderful 13 year old who looks just like her mother (which we are all happy about).” He rides 100-mile bike races and raises Clydesdale horses. His wife told D Magazine that he chops wood to clear his head: She “can measure the next week’s challenges by the height of the split-wood pile.” It seems likely Earley will spend this coming weekend with axe in hand.