SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 09 (Reuters) – Ruling in a closely watched “right to die” case, California’s top court said on Thursday that family members have no right to stop life support for conscious patients who are not terminally ill.
The California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision came several weeks after the death of the man at the center of the case, 49-year-old Robert Wendland, who died of natural causes on July 17 while still attached to life support.
But the case continued, testing the right of family members to disconnect artificial life support systems from incapacitated loved ones who have given no clear indication of their own desires.
Wendland sustained injuries in a 1993 truck accident that left him conscious but severely disabled, both mentally and physically, and dependent on food and water delivered artificially via tube.
While Wendland was deemed to be “minimally conscious” and able to respond to a few simple commands, he was unable to talk, walk, eat, drink or use a bathroom and his closest family members said he never recognized or communicated with them in any way.
His wife and legal conservator, Rose Wendland, asked for permission to disconnect the life support tubes in 1995, saying her husband–who did not leave specific instructions–would never have approved the procedures being used to keep him alive.
But Wendland’s mother and sister objected, leading to a protracted court fight over if and when family members may step in to stop artificial life support.
Courts have previously allowed removal of life support in cases where a patient is terminally ill or in a coma-like state. But the rules were unclear on how a family should make decisions when a patient is in a near-vegetative state.
Rose Wendland based her case on two conversations she had with her husband prior to his accident in which he reportedly told her that he “wouldn’t want to live like a vegetable.”
His mother disagreed, saying that Wendland was conscious enough to kiss her hand and cry during hospital visits.
While Robert Wendland died before the case could be decided, Rose Wendland had asked the state Supreme Court to make its ruling to clarify the law for future cases.
“I would hope that families wouldn’t have to go through what we went through,” Wendland told a news conference after her husband’s death.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, said that in cases like Wendland’s, life support may not be halted “absent clear and convincing evidence that the conservator’s decision is in accordance with either the conservatee’s own wishes or best interest.”
But the court took pains to emphasize the narrow scope of its ruling, saying it affects only those cases involving conscious patients who have left no formal directions for healthcare and who would die without life support.
“Our conclusion does not affect permanently unconscious patients, including those who are comatose or in a persistent vegetative state,” the court said.
Others not covered by the ruling include patients who have left legal instructions regarding their healthcare or who have appointed others to make such decisions.