DOES A CONSCIOUS MAN HAVE THE RIGHT TO DIE?
This case is different from most. In this trial in Sacramento, California, the trial court decided that a severely brain-damaged but conscious man must be kept alive even though his wife, children, and brother say he would have wanted to die. Of course, his mother and sister say he would have wanted to live--which is why this case ended up in court. The individual in this case is named Robert Wendland and he has been on life support since 1993. Wendland is partially paralyzed and unable to speak, with limited mental functioning. In 1995, Mr. Wendland's wife requested that he no longer be given food and water. Ergo, a trial.
What makes the Wendland case disturbing is the fact that the family is not exactly united. If they were united, there likely never would have been a court case as in those situations the family and hospital are generally in agreement as to what needs to be done and actions are taken accordingly.
Two months into the trial a tormented Judge McNatt in Sacramento decided that although he believes Mr. Wendland would choose death if he were able to choose, he decided to err on the side of caution and keep Mr. Wendland alive. Had the Judge ruled otherwise, Wendland would have become the first person in this State who wasn't terminally ill to be legally withdrawn from life support.
The evidence in this case indicated that Wendland had about a zero chance of making a significant recovery; however, the law in this State does not provide for a right to die in the situation of Mr. Wendland. Judge McNatt was strongly conflicted, indicating "I feel this is the absolutely wrong decision for all the right reasons... I don't know whether here today I am preserving Robert's life or whether I am sentencing him to life."
While this was the first case of its kind in California, it is not unprecedented in this country as in 1995 the Michigan Supreme Court had to deal with a scenario where the man had a similar medical condition, his mother and sister wanted to keep him alive, however, his wife wanted to cut off his food and water. In that matter, the court in Michigan decided to keep the individual alive.
This is a classic case of a judge applying the existing law to a situation even when he's not real comfortable with the result. Often judges are accused of reaching their desired result first and then trying to find law to support the decision. In this case, Judge McNatt is clearly of the belief that Mr. Wendland would choose to die if he were able to do so; however, the judge appropriately applied the law. This is exactly what a judge is supposed to do. Sometimes this puts the judge in an uncomfortable position as Judge McNatt indicated he had been losing sleep over this matter before he made his ruling.
I think it's great that he lost some sleep and agonized and then did the right thing. The wrong thing is often easy to do; the right one requires a little bit more. It is not his job to try to decide what Robert Wendland would choose, it is his job to apply the law. Judge McNatt ought to be applauded for his actions. The role of a judge requires consideration, deliberation, and often a painful choice. Certainly when it comes to a human life, if one is to err one ought to err on the side of caution. This is what Judge McNatt decided. This was a courageous ruling based on the facts; Judge McNatt did the right thing.