Marlowe's Shade

Friday, April 22, 2005

Euthanasia Hall of Shame: The Wendland Case

The more I look into the history of euthanasia and the right-to-die movement, the greater a sense of shame I experience at my profound ignorance of how the culture of death has progressed. See if the deja vu doesn't kick in reading this:

ROBERT WENDLAND should die so that his family can "be allowed to live their lives," Dr. Ronald Cranford, a Minnesota neurologist and bioethicist, testified recently in the Stockton, CA, courtroom of Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt. The chosen method of death? Intentional dehydration and starvation.

What has Wendland, 45, done to deserve such a fate? He went into a coma in September 1993 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Sixteen months later, he awakened from the coma, paralyzed on one side and unable to walk, talk or swallow well enough to eat. He is physically and cognitively disabled and dependent on others for his care. He is not terminally ill. He is not hooked up to machines. He does require a feeding tube to sustain his life.

The villain of the story, Dr Cranford probably needs no introduction, and it was also written by Wesley J. Smith, who was the lone voice in the wilderness of bioethics who championed Terri Schiavo's cause.

The parallels to Terri's case are eerie:

Rose Wendland, Robert's wife, claims Robert would not want to live in his current condition. She bases her claim primarily on her husband's statements made in the aftermath of her father's death, three months before Robert's injury, that he would not want to live if he could not "be a husband, father or a provider."

But is it right to kill someone because he might have said he would not want to live in a dependent state? Is it right to kill someone because he can't work and be productive? Is it right to kill someone because he is disabled? Robert Wendland's mother, Florence Wendland, and half-sister, Rebekah Vinson, say no. They sued to prevent the dehydration.

It is important to note that Wendland has slowly improved in the nearly two years since he awakened from his coma. For example, he:
    Has maneuvered an electric wheelchair down hospital corridors and can now maneuver a manual wheelchair with his unparalyzed leg or arm.
    Has written the letter "R" of his first name when asked, as well as some other letters of his name.
    Has used buttons to accurately answer yes and no questions some of the time. (Is your name Robert? Yes. Is your name Michael? No.) In this regard, one of his doctors asked Wendland if he wanted to die. He didn't answer the question.

According to Cranford, these and other of Wendland's activities mean little. He also opined in his testimony that Wendland's therapists, who believe he has slowly improved, should be disregarded by McNatt because they are only "seeing what they want to see."

Perhaps it is Cranford who is not seeing what he does not want to see.

It is disturbing that McNatt did not dismiss Rose Wendland's desire to end her husband's life out of hand when the case first came to his court two years ago. It is especially disturbing that a noted neurologist such as Cranford believes that one reason to dehydrate Wendland is to benefit his family, even though Rose Wendland has said she now only visits her husband once a month for about 30 minutes, and his children do not visit at all.

The denouement of the story was perhaps more merciful for Robert Wendland:

Robert Wendland died of pneumonia today (July 17, 2001). His mother was at his side. Neither his wife nor his children were.

During the last several weeks of her son's life, Florence Wendland was not permitted to take him out of his room. She was denied all knowledge about the state of his health.

She does not know if he was properly turned or how or whether he was treated for pneumonia. She did not even know what ailed him. She has been denied access to all medical records and all medical information about his care. Florence Wendland learned of the purported cause of his death via a press release sent out by Lawrence Nelson, Rose Wendland's attorney, which he issued after her son had died.

The fight to save Robert Wendland from dehydration was not in vain. A dangerous legal precedent was avoided. The lives of other disabled people, whose names we will never know, may well have been saved.

But this was merely a holding action. Unless we are able to convince society that disabled people like Robert Wendland have lives of equal moral worth, our society will continue to discount their humanity and brush off their deaths.

I wonder how aggressively the pneumonia was treated and also whether Dr Cranford and his ilk felt cheated of the legal victory for which they had to wait almost another four years.
papijoe 6:45 AM