If Robert Wendland, 49, had been a convicted killer on death row, there would have been legions of righteous do-gooders demanding that he not be executed because he was mentally retarded. Instead, he was in Lodi Memorial Hospital, brain-damaged and half-paralyzed by a 1993 car accident. Thus, when his wife Rose sought to cut off his food and fluids to allow him to die of thirst, her lawyer argued that death would be in his "best interests" because: "Robert is a man with no life that is meaningful to him.''
Wendland died of pneumonia last week as the California Supreme Court was about to rule on legal attempts by his mother Florence and sister Rebekah Vinson to keep Wendland alive.
Now the court can and must issue a ruling that makes it clear that the state cannot allow relatives to euthanize the severely brain-damaged, or as the pro-dehydration folks put it, those in a "minimally conscious state." That term, which they applied to Wendland, glosses over the fact that, even if he could not walk or talk, he could toss a ball, maneuver his wheelchair and, according to a sworn affidavit, he would kiss his mother's hand and present his hand for his mother to kiss.
Courts have been correct in upholding the rights of patients to refuse unwanted surgery or to be hooked up to life-extending machines. Wendland, however, could not consent to withholding treatment -- if you call providing food and water treatment. Wendland left no written directive asking that sustenance be withheld in the event of a severe accident. (Good for him: Many people think they would not want to live if disabled -- until they are disabled.)
Here's the real issue before the Big Bench: Should able-bodied Californians let their fear and revulsion at the thought of being disabled lead to policies that allow families to kill disabled people who are not competent to make medical decisions?
If the answer is yes, Californians will follow in the footsteps of euthanizing Nazis: killing retarded and brain-damaged people -- because it's best for them.
Or as Rose Wendland's attorney suggested to the court -- and he is hardly the first to do so -- withholding food and water would allow Wendland to maintain his "dignity."
Diane Coleman, president of the disability-advocacy group Not Yet Dead, finds the "dignity" argument "so insulting to us as a minority group. To say that someone needs to be able to walk, talk and go to the bathroom by themselves to have dignity -- that's ridiculous. And those ideas don't come from within a (disabled) person, they come from people outside telling them that they don't have dignity."
I should advise readers that my husband, Wesley J. Smith, wrote a friend of the court brief pro bono for the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals that took the side of Wendland's mother and sister.
I have watched as others have impugned the motives of those individuals who dedicated countless hours to keep a helpless, profoundly brain-damaged man alive. The pro-death side speaks as if there is something noble and caring about trying to withhold water from a disabled man, and something twisted and busybodyish in trying to save him.
If the dehydration forces prevail, it will be open season on the cognitively disabled. But don't compare any beneficent dehydrations to what the Nazis did; the Nazis weren't as caring as modern Californians.