California Supreme Court clarifies life support rule

By David Kravets Associated Press Writer
Saturday August 11, 2001

Justices block support removal on man in semiconscious state 


SAN FRANCISCO – The right to die does not extend to people who are unable to communicate or care for themselves, but are conscious and in a twilight state, the state Supreme Court has ruled. 

In a closely watched case, the court ruled Thursday 6-0 that a family is not free to end life support for an incapacitated loved one simply because he had said he would not want to live like a vegetable. 

Robert Wendland, severely injured in a 1993 auto accident, died last month from pneumonia at age 49, but the justices ruled on the case anyway to clarify unsettled law. 

In 1995, Rose Wendland directed doctors to pull her husband’s feeding tubes, saying she thought she was carrying out his wishes because he had twice commented about not wanting to live as a vegetable. 

But the woman’s request was blocked and has been embroiled in the courts ever since, reigniting debate over when loved ones can make such directives when no will or other written document verifies those wishes. 

“These two conversations (between the Wendlands) 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 conservators could pull the plug on incapacitated loved ones. Instead, its decision affects only a narrow class of persons: those technically conscious who have not left formal written directions for health care. 

Doctors said Robert Wendland had some ability to think and to sometimes move in his hospital bed, but had no ability to communicate whether he wanted to live or die. 

Robert Wendland’s mother, Florence Wendland, had fought her daughter-in-law’s effort to remove life support. She claimed her son was not a vegetable and therefore the feeding tubes should not be pulled because those were not his wishes. 

“I didn’t want to see him starve to death. What would you do if it was your son, if somebody wanted to do that to your loved one?” Florence Wendland said. 

Rose Wendland said Thursday she only wanted to follow her husband’s desires. 

“His pain would be even greater with the decision that was made,” she said. “It was Robert’s wishes to never be in the state that he was in.” 

A group of 43 medical ethicists had urged the court to abide by the wife’s wishes. 

“The court has told us that, if you want to have a say in your end-of-life decision-making, you better put it in an advance, written directive,” said Jon B. Eisenberg, an attorney for the ethicists. “The problem here is: I don’t know how you do that in a manner that covers all of the possibilities.”