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Word to Pa.’s highest court: People with disabilities not better off dead

ADF, allied attorneys: Conscious, non-terminal people with disabilities should not be denied care
Published On: 10/18/2017
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Alliance Defense Fund and allied attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday with Pennsylvania’s highest court on behalf of a mentally disabled patient, arguing that his legal guardians should not be allowed to deny him life-sustaining treatment while he is in a stable and conscious condition. The legal guardians of David Hockenberry, a 50-year-old man with acute mental retardation since birth, unsuccessfully attempted to deny him temporary life-sustaining medical treatment for pneumonia and have appealed to the high court for the right to refuse such treatment in the future.


“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 more than 1,600 attorneys in the ADF alliance. “Mr. Hockenberry is healthy and conscious. His life doesn’t become worthless when he sustains a life-threatening condition and his legal guardians aren’t satisfied with how he’s living.”

In December 2007, Hockenberry developed aspiration pneumonia after vomiting from swallowing a hairpin, resulting in his transfer from Edensburg Center, where he resided for 45 years, to Memorial Hospital for treatment. Hockenberry’s parents, who were appointed as his legal guardians in 2002 by a trial court, attempted 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 to Grant Guardians Authority to Exercise the Powers of a Health Care Agent on Behalf of the Incapacitated” with a trial court in January 2008. The Department of Public Welfare objected, stating that Hockenberry was neither terminally ill nor permanently unconscious and never appointed a health care agent to refuse healthcare necessary to the preservation of his life.  The trial court subsequently entered an order in the case, In re: Hockenberry, denying the petition before month’s end.

After the lower court’s denial, Hockenberry’s parents appealed the ruling to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which issued an opinion denying the petition in February 2009. The guardians then filed an appeal in May to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which agreed to hear the case last December. In their friend-of-the court brief to the state’s highest court, ADF attorneys argue that people should not be considered better off dead just because of a disability. The court will decide whether legal guardians have the authority to decline potentially life-sustaining treatment for a lifelong incapacitated person who is neither suffering from an end-stage medical illness nor is in a permanent vegetative state.

“A person’s value is not 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 medical condition.”

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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