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In a ruling involving a mentally disabled man whose legal guardians sought the power to end his medical care, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has determined that state law requires life-preserving treatment for people who are not near death and have not refused treatment.

The Alliance Defense Fund and allied pro-life attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 53-year-old David Hockenberry, who has had acute mental disabilities since birth, arguing that his legal guardians should not be allowed to deny him life-preserving treatment while he is not terminal or unconscious.

Hockenberry’s guardians unsuccessfully attempted to deny him temporary life-preserving medical treatment for pneumonia.

“Having a disability shouldn’t be a death sentence when treatable medical complications arise,” said Independence Law Center Chief Counsel Randall L. Wenger, one of the allied attorneys.

“The court made the right decision to protect Mr. Hockenberry’s right to live. He is not dying or unconscious, and his life isn’t worthless just because he has a disability that may lead others to view his life as less worthy to live,” he added.

“A person’s value isn’t based on his or her physical or mental abilities,” said ADF Legal Counsel Matt Bowman. “No one should be allowed to decide that a person’s life is not worth saving just because he or she has a disability or medical condition.”

In December 2007, Hockenberry developed aspiration pneumonia. Hockenberry’s guardians–appointed as his legal guardians in 2002 by a trial court–tried to decline his required ventilator treatment to assist his breathing, but the hospital proceeded despite their objection. After three weeks on the mechanical ventilator, he recovered from pneumonia and no longer required the treatment.

Hockenberry’s guardians filed a petition with a trial court in January 2008 that would allow them to end his care if a similar situation were to arise in the future. The Department of Public Welfare objected, stating that Hockenberry was neither terminally ill nor permanently unconscious and never appointed a third party with the power to refuse healthcare necessary to the preservation of his life.

Hockenberry’s guardians filed a series of appeals until their case reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

In March, ADF and allied attorneys argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that people should not be considered better off dead just because of a disability. The high court concurred that the Health Care Agents and Representatives Act requires life-preserving care for such persons.

“We hold that where, as here, life-preserving treatment is at issue for an incompetent person who is not suffering from an end-stage condition or permanent unconsciousness, and that person has no health care agent, the Act mandates that the care must be provided,” the opinion states.

“The enactment…regulates the situation in which the incompetent person suffers from a life-threatening but treatable condition, obviously reflecting the Legislature’s assertion of a policy position of greater state involvement to preserve life in such circumstances.”

Related web sites:
Alliance Defense Fund –
[August 30, 2010, Ertelt, Harrisburg, PA,]