ADF: U. of Wis. Hospitals shouldn’t let disabled patients starve

Brief filed with Wis. Supreme Court argues hospitals violated state law
Thursday, January 29, 2015

Attorney sound bite:  Catherine Glenn Foster

MADISON, Wis. – Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Wisconsin Supreme Court that supports a lawsuit against University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics after it denied treatment to two developmentally disabled patients even though they were not in a persistent vegetative state and were not terminally ill. One of the patients, a 13-year-old boy, died; the other, a 79-year-old woman, survived.

Without a court order and according to state law, a hospital can withhold treatment only if the patient has received a PVS diagnosis or has expressed a desire to refuse life-sustaining treatment prior to legal incompetency. Neither patient fit these qualifications.

“Having a disability shouldn’t be a death sentence,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Catherine Glenn Foster. “Neither patient was in an end-of-life situation. Allowing the hospital to get away with withholding treatment in this way endangers vulnerable patients and puts all patients’ lives – particularly those of patients with disabilities – at grave risk.”

A doctor with UW Hospitals and Clinics agreed to withhold treatment from a 13-year-old developmentally disabled boy given his “poor prognosis and poor quality of life” after only one meeting, no physical exam, no observation of his daily life, and no consultation with his long-term care team. UW physicians took him under their care, cut off his antibiotics for pneumonia, eliminated his nutrition and hydration, and sent him to hospice, where he died.

Similarly, after accepting responsibility for a second patient, a 79-year-old woman with developmental disabilities, a doctor pressured her family to limit treatment, nutrition, and hydration and to send her to hospice, even in the face of her improvement and her family’s resistance. The woman lived due to her body’s resilience and her family’s protests.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin’s protection and advocacy system for developmentally disabled adults, filed the lawsuit Disability Rights Wisconsin v. University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in 2009. ADF filed a supportive friend-of-the-court brief at the appellate level and now another supportive brief at the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of Wisconsin Catholic Medical Guilds. The brief contends that the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics and its doctors, as state actors, violated the patients’ fundamental right to life.

“Every human being is endowed with a fundamental constitutional right to life,” the brief explains. “Physicians, via both a priori ethical obligations and the law, have a duty to protect and support their patients’ lives to the best of their knowledge and ability. State-employed physicians have an even greater responsibility. Yet the treatment of both patients here…flies in the face of this duty….”

The brief adds that those objecting to the actions of UW Hospitals and Clinics “simply expect physicians to follow the law and ethics of their profession rather than their own subjective and hypothetical perception of a patient’s future quality of life. If an unauthorized party attempts to request an unethical action, a physician must refuse, as the staff at [the 13-year-old boy]’s long-term care facility did.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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