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Robert Wendland case
CA high court says wife can't stop disabled husband's food, water
by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
August 9, 2001

This article is reproduced here under special arrangement with Inclusion Daily Express Email News Service.

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA--The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a court-appointed conservator cannot order life-giving food and water withheld from a conscious patient, unless "clear and convincing evidence" proves that the patient wanted to die under those specific circumstances.

'Bittersweet victory,' says Not Dead Yet.
"We are glad that the court recognized that Robert Wendland was a conscious person with a disability and reversed the appeals court decision," said Not Dead Yet's Carol Cleigh. "We are glad that they decided as they did that the lives of conscious but incompetent disabled people deserve protection." Cleigh said Wendland's family could "take comfort in the fact that their battle to save him will save others."

She said that the group hoped the decision would "slow the relentless push for expansion of the 'right' of family members to terminate the lives of disabled people. There is tremendous prejudice about how terrible our lives are that must be addressed," she said.

The 6-0 ruling in the Conservatorship of Wendland affirms a lower court ruling that while a conservator can make health-related decisions on behalf of an "incompetent" patient, those decisions must be based on the patient's best interests and wishes. Refusing life-sustaining treatment cannot be considered to be in the patient's best interests and wishes, unless if the patient had specifically indicated that in a formal manner while "competent".

The court made it clear, however, that the ruling only applied to conscious patients who were "not terminally ill, comatose, or in a persistent vegetative state", and only to persons who had not left "formal instructions" regarding their health care, or had not appointed a person to make health care decisions for them.

At the center of the case was Robert Wendland, a former auto parts salesman who spent 17 months in a coma following a roll-over accident in September of 1993. In the years after Wendland came out of his coma, medical experts disagreed over how aware he was of his surroundings. He never talked, but did communicate in other ways. He was also able to catch a ball and put pegs in a board.

In 1995, his wife Rose asked that tubes feeding nutrition and water into Robert's stomach be removed and that he be allowed to die. She and other witnesses said that on two separate occasions before the accident Robert had commented that he never wanted to live "like a vegetable".

Robert's mother, Florence, opposed Rose, arguing that her son would have wanted to live.

The case divided the family as it went back and forth all the way to the California Supreme Court.

Robert will not be able to take advantage of the court's ruling. He died three weeks ago from pneumonia.

This case was watched closely by disability rights and other advocacy groups, because of its potential impact on the amount of control conservators and guardians can have when it comes to decisions regarding the life and death of people with "severe disabilities".

The groups that had shown support for Florence Wendland's struggle to keep her son alive included the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, the ARC, Brain Injury Association, Inc., Center for Self-Determination, the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University, the Disability Rights Center, the National Council on Independent Living, the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and TASH.

The 50-page ruling is available at this web address: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S087265.DOC

Read more Inclusion Daily Express articles on the Wendland case.

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