Legal brief challenges Wisconsin hospital’s “end-of-life” practices

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News from Wisconsin

Fourteen disability rights groups filed an amicus brief May 23 in a four-year-old case challenging the University of Wisconsin Hospital Center’s alleged “practice of counseling families of people with developmental disabilities to withhold care for treatable but potentially life-threatening medical conditions.”

“We need the court to recognize that people with disabilities shouldn’t be refused care simply because a doctor doesn’t think their lives are worth living,” said Samantha Crane, director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, in a news release. “Often, this sort of judgment serves as cover for discriminatory denials of care.

The case centers on two incidents at the hospital. In the first case, the director of hospital’s ethics committee allegedly told a hospital physician in August 2006 that he should withdraw antibiotics, nutrition and hydration from a 13-year-old boy, despite his history of responding well to the treatments.

Months later, the boy died of pneumonia. As the disability advocacy groups see it, the “only apparent justification for this course of action was the fact that the boy had a significant developmental disability and therefore was perceived to have a ‘low quality of life.’”

In another case, a doctor at the hospital allegedly counseled the family members of an adult woman with developmental disabilities to withdraw her from certain antibiotics that were being used to treat an acute respiratory infection.

Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in 2009, accusing the hospital of violating the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions by failing to providing life-saving treatments to these individuals. The Dane County Circuit Court dismissed the complaint in December 2013, prompting the current appeal.

In the amicus brief, filed in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District IV, the advocacy groups argued that state law limits the authority of family members and guardians to decide whether to withdraw life-saving medical treatments. In addition, they argued that hospitals and hospital physicians have a corresponding duty to provide lifesaving care.

“People with disabilities are at particular risk of being deprived of medical care if state-employed physicians are granted immunity for their participation in plans to end life through withdrawal of lifesaving care,” the amicus brief states. “Amici therefore urge the Court of Appeals to recognize state-employed physicians’ legal duty to avoid abetting courses of action that, under Wisconsin law, constitute homicide through deprivation of care.”

In addition to 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 joined the amicus brief.

Disability Rights Wisconsin is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.