Court clarifies life support guidelines

The Associated Press
Friday August 10, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court clarified Thursday when family members may pull the plug on their loved ones in a closely watched right-to-die case. 

The court, in a highly anticipated ruling, said a Stockton woman could not end life support for her incapacitated husband simply because he told her twice before an auto accident that he would not want to live like a vegetable. The justices, ruling 6-0, noted that the husband was not hospitalized in a vegetative state but instead was conscious, albeit seesawing in a twilight state that provided him no means to care for himself. 

“These two conversations do not establish by clear and convincing evidence that the conservatee would desire to have his life-sustaining treatment terminated under the circumstances in which he now finds himself,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote. The court cautioned, however, that it was not setting a broad standard when conservator’s could pull the plug on conservatees. Instead, its decision affects “only a narrow class of persons: conscious conservatees who have not left formal directions for health care and whose conservators propose to withhold life-sustaining treatment for the purpose of causing their conservatees’ deaths.” 

The case began in 1995, when Rose Wendland thought she was carrying out her husband’s wishes when she directed doctors to pull his feeding tubes, two years after an auto accident left him in a near-vegetative state. But the woman’s wishes were blocked and have been embroiled in the courts ever since, reigniting national debate over when loved ones can make such directives when no will or other written document verifies those wishes. An estimated 15 percent of U.S. adults have drafted such wills or designated such powers to others.