Can a “Right to Die” be Turned into a Forced Fate? (1997)

by Wesley J. Smith

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 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.

Those who seek to end Wendland’s life downplay his physical and cognitive abilities. That is because people who are diagnosed as permanently unconscious are being dehydrated in this country, all perfectly legal thanks to several court decisions. Now, “right-to-die” activists such as Cranford who has testified in support of dehydration in most of the nation’s major dehydration cases of brain-damaged patients, including that of Nancy Beth Cruzan want to stretch acceptable dehydration to disabled folk with brain damage who are awake and aware. This is the slippery slope in action.

A Wisconsin Supreme Court decision dealt a blow recently to the right-to-die crowd’s hopes when it ruled that it is not acceptable in Wisconsin to dehydrate conscious, brain-damaged patients (who would feel pain and agony) absent clear and convincing evidence probably through a written declaration executed by the patient before illness or injury that dehydration is precisely and explicitly what the now-incapacitated patient wanted. In other words, general statements are not enough. The Michigan Supreme Court issued a similar ruling in 1995.

Cranford and others of his ideological persuasion were not amused by these decisions, seeing them as an impediment to the right to die. Wendland provides an opportunity to expand the law.

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 seeking 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.

Dehydration begins when the feeding tube is removed, and death occurs usually within six to 30 days. Ironically, in order to ensure Wendland doesn’t feel the pain of dehydration, Cranford testified it might be necessary to put him back into a coma with morphine.

It is said that a society is judged by the way in which it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Increasingly in the United States, we kill them. Let us hope that McNatt does not add Wendland to the list.


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