Patient 1, as identified in court documents, was a 13-year-old boy with developmental disabilities who had pneumonia. His parents, after consulting with doctors at the University of Wisconsin Hospital Clinics, decided that his prognosis and quality of life were so poor that it “would be reasonable to limit his medical interventions.”
The Hospital transferred Patient 1, who had been staying in a long-term facility, to its hospice care wing, where it withdrew his antibiotics, food and water. Shortly thereafter, he died.
Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the Hospital in May 2009, arguing that it violated the state Constitution by encouraging families to discontinue treatment, both in the case of Patient 1 and another patient.
The Dane County Circuit Court dismissed the complaint in December 2013. In the appeal, fourteen disability rights groups signed onto an amicus brief in support of Disability Rights Wisconsin’s contentions.
On December 11, the Wisconsin Court of Appeal District IV, while not passing judgment on whether the doctors were negligent or violated any ethical standards, found that the Hospital did not violate Wisconsin Constitution.
“Disability Rights Wisconsin fails to develop an argument, or to point to legal authority for the proposition, that a doctor’s ‘encouraging’ a surrogate to decide not to treat a patient or to discontinue treatment could be a substantive due process violation if the doctor’s failure to provide treatment were not in itself a violation,” the Court wrote.
In making its constitutional argument, Disability Rights Wisconsin based its argument on three prior state cases.
In the first case, a Wisconsin circuit found that when patients are in a vegetative state, a guardian can consent to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment if it is in the patient’s best interests.
The court in the second case, however, found that when a patient is not in a vegetative state, guardians do not have the authority to refuse life-sustaining treatment, absent an advanced directive indicating that the patient would not have wanted treatment in such a situation.
The third case confirmed that a guardian cannot refuse life-sustaining treatment for a person not in a vegetative state, this time in the context of a baby.
“This isn’t about providing medical care, it’s about cutting off medical care that has already started,” Disability Rights Wisconsin attorney Mitchell Hagopian told the Associated Press, adding that the group plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
As the Court saw it, those three cases are distinguishable from this one because those cases focused on the rights of guardians, while this case focuses on the obligations of doctors.
“It is not surprising that Disability Rights fails to identify authority in Wisconsin case law for the proposition that there is a substantive due process right to medical care from the government,” the Court wrote. “Any such recognition would appear to run contrary to the fundamental principle that the government is not under a constitutional duty to affirmatively protect persons or to rescue them from perils ‘that the government did not create.'”
The amicus brief was signed by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Council of the Blind, Association for Autistic Community, Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, Autism Women’s Network, National Association of the Deaf, National Council on Independent Living, National Disability Rights Network, Quality Trust for Individuals With Disabilities, United Spinal Association and the Wisconsin Board for People With Developmental Disabilities.
Disability Rights Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.