State high court grapples with pulling plug on accident victim

DAVID KRAVETS, Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, May 30, 2001
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(05-30) 14:04 PDT SAN FRANCISCO (AP) --

Rose Wendland thought she was carrying out her husband's wishes in 1995 when she directed doctors to pull his feeding tubes, two years after an auto accident left him in a near-vegetative state.

Instead, the plight of Robert Wendland has reignited 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.

The debate over Robert's future took center stage before the California Supreme Court on Wednesday, three decades after a New Jersey court said the family of Karen Ann Quinlan had the right to withdraw medical treatment to their comatose daughter, who was classified in a permanent vegetative state.

It's not the first right-to-die case before California's justices. In 1993, the high court said mentally competent adults may refuse lifesaving medical treatment. That case came three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Missouri case, said there was a constitutional right to withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment, but left it up to the states to devise the legal framework.

At issue in the Wendland case is whether statements Robert made to his wife before his near-fatal traffic accident in Lodi -- such as saying he did not want to live like a vegetable -- are enough proof to allow doctors to remove the tubes that keep the 49-year-old former auto parts dealer alive.

An appeals court said those statements, and doctors at a Lodi hospital agreeing with the decision, are all that is necessary to end the life of the father of three.

"It's a decision that he wanted," said his wife, who added that her husband made the statement about wanting to die before the accident and after the death of her father, who died when life support was turned off.

But Robert's mother, Florence Wendland, claims her son is not a vegetable and therefore should not die, because those were not his wishes. Doctors say Robert has some ability to think and to sometimes move in his hospital bed, but has no ability to communicate whether he wants to live or die.

It's a twilight state providing him no means to care for himself.

That's a situation that has prompted a host of disability rights groups to push for Robert's survival on grounds that he is not a vegetable, but instead is a disabled man.

"We don't think it's appropriate for people to have a license to kill people with disabilities," said Amy Hasbrouck, an attorney with the disability group, Not Dead Yet, which urged the California justices to spare Robert.

Inside a crowded courtroom here, the justices grappled over Robert's fate. From the outset, the mother's attorney, Janie Hickok Siess, framed the importance of the justices' pending decision.

"The gravest issue is before you, that is a man's life," Siess said.

Some of the high court justices were unsure whether they should allow Robert to die, on grounds that it is unclear whether his medical condition is the one which he told his wife was unbearable.

"Don't those remarks express being in a totally vegetative state, which I think we would all agree do not describe his condition?" Chief Justice Ronald M. George asked.

But Justice Janice Rogers Brown suggested that, even had Robert documented his desire to die, there's no way to accurately predict an exact medical condition for which somebody might want to pull the plug.

"How could you ever meet that?" she asked.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter wondered aloud whether keeping Robert alive would send a message to people that they should document their desires while they are competent to do so.

"Shouldn't people be encouraged to set forth their instructions in a very specific way?" he asked.

Attorney Jon Eisenberg, who represents a group of medical ethicists who want the court to carry out the wife's wishes, answered that, "People are not going to do it in droves."

Outside of court, Robert's daughter, Kerrie, said she knows her father would want to die. She knows that every time she visits him in a Lodi hospital.

"That's not my father," she said.

The case is Conservatorship of Robert Wendland, S087265. The court generally rules within 90 days.

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2001 Associated Press