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California Supreme Court Grapples with Pulling Plug on Accident Victim

(Thursday, May 31, 2001)

California Supreme Court Grapples with Pulling Plug on Accident Victim

By David Kravets

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The California Supreme Court has begun hearing the case of a woman who wants permission to pull her husband off life support because she says that is what he would have wanted after an auto accident left him in a near-vegetative state.

The case has become the center of right-to-die issues in California and ignited debate over when loved ones can order removal of life support with no will or other written document verifying those wishes.

Rose Wendland directed doctors to pull husband Robert Wendland’s feeding tubes in 1995, two years after he crashed his car while driving drunk in northern California.

She said statements he made before the crash — such as telling her he did not want to live like a “vegetable” — are enough proof to allow the life support to end.

“It’s a decision that he wanted,” Rose Wendland said.

An appeals court agreed but Robert Wendland’s mother, Florence, claims her son isn’t a “vegetable” and should be allowed to live. She appealed to the Supreme Court.

Doctors say Wendland has some ability to think and sometimes move in his hospital bed, but has no ability to communicate whether he wants to live or die.

In a packed courtroom Wednesday, 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 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 Wendland 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.

The case comes 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 ruling followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Missouri case that said there was a constitutional right to withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment, but left it up to the states to devise the legal framework.

Other Selected Articles on Robert Wendland Case

Out of a Coma, Into a Twilight . . . LA Times, May 31, 2001

New Twist in Cases Over Right to Die: Patient Is in Twilight State, Not in a Coma . . . San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 2001

ENDING LIFE SUPPORT: WHO DECIDES? . . . Transcript from CNN’s Talkback Live, May 30, 2001

ACLU-Northern California Supports Man’s Right to End Life Support . . . ACLU News, January/February, 2001

California High Court to Ponder Rights on Medical Decisions. American Medical News. . . July 31, 2000

Appellate Court Says Wife Has Right to Disconnect Husband’s Life Support . . . Associated Press, February 24, 2000

Lack Of Advance Directive Contributes To Family Tragedy . . . Elder Law Issues August 10, 1998 Vol. 6,