Today's News & Views

August 13, 2001

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Dave Andrusko

ROBERT WENDLAND: RIP [PART ONE OF TWO]

For those faithful followers who’ve monitored the Robert Wendland case, we pass along the unhappy news that the 49-year-old California man died July 17 of pneumonia. Mr. Wendland’s fate was the subject of a ferocious six-year-long legal battle between his wife, who wished to remove her severely disabled husband’s feeding tube, and his mother, Florence Wendland, and sister, Rebekah Vinson, who were equally determined not to allow its removal.

If there be any good news in this sad tale it is that the California Supreme Court decided to render an opinion even though Mr. Wendland had died. Consistent with prior cases in Wisconsin and Michigan, the justices unanimously ruled August 9 that his wife did not have the right to order the removal of his feeding tube, since Wendland was not in a coma or terminally ill and had not left instructions that he would want to die if incapacitated, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Florence was with her son when he took his last breath, according to the Times. The paper also reported that Rose Wendland refused to allow Rebekah to visit him in his last days.

The stakes for people who are mentally and physically disabled could not have been higher. At issue was whether guardians of incompetent patients have virtually carte blanche life-and-death power, even so far as to make a decision that the patient while competent had rejected.

On February 24, 2000, the state Court of Appeals held that California law allowed guardians to make life-ending decisions as long as they act in good faith based on medical advice.

According to the decision, courts were not even allowed to independently evaluate the expressed wishes of the patient before the disability or even the "best interests" of the patient, as long as the guardian had taken them into consideration.  "[T]he court is merely to satisfy itself that the conservator has considered the conservatee's best interest," the appeals
court wrote.
 

The court expressly included people who are disabled but not terminally ill or in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) in its ruling.

When the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last fall, most observers concluded the justices were clearly uneasy with the slippery slope implications should they allow Robert Wendland to be starved and dehydrated to death. This impression was borne out in the 6-0 August 9 opinion.

Writing for the Court, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said that life support for a patient in Wendland's condition may not be stopped "absent clear and convincing evidence that the conservator's decision is in accordance with either the conservatee's own wishes or best interest."
 

"The decision to treat is reversible," Werdegar wrote. "The decision to withdraw treatment is not."

Tomorrow some concluding thoughts about an extraordinary case.

dave andrusko can be reached at dha1245@juno.com