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Judge rules that spouse has authority to remove partner's life support if there's no directive

Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles judge has ruled that a spouse in California is the presumptive health care decision-maker when the partner is in a persistent vegetative state.

Ruling in the case of a San Gabriel Valley man, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House said that in the event that there is no advance directive for someone in a vegetative state, their partner can decide for them. California law, House noted in her ruling, has left "a gap" when it comes to this issue.

The case involves Juan Fernando Romero, who suffered a lack of oxygen to the brain in May 2015 that left him in a persistent vegetative state at a San Gabriel Valley hospital.

His wife, Ana Romero, in 2016 sought to remove his life support and feeding tube, saying he would never return from the vegetative state again. But his sister sued to gain control of the end-of-life decision from his wife.

The sister's attorneys argued in legal papers the wife did not have the right to make the decision under the law and lawmakers in setting out the law had emphasized family consensus. Her attorneys argued that her brother did not want to die and it was against his Roman Catholic belief that life is sacred.

But House ruled the wife did have the right to make the decision for the father of their two young children, who is unresponsive to physical and psychological stimuli. "As his spouse, Ana is the presumptive health care surrogate for Juan Fernando in light of his incapacitation." House wrote.

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The case is reminiscent of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida in which her husband sought to disconnect life support and her parents fought him for years in the courts in a highly publicized and prolonged series of legal challenges.

In the Romero case, the judge noted that Juan Fernando Romero had discussed with his wife the issue of not prolonging death. "Not one member of Juan Fernando's immediate family (mother, father, sisters) ever discussed with him what his wishes were if he was in a permanent vegetative state, bedridden, and unable to recover or communicate," House noted of the testimony.

His brain function, she added, was limited to subcortical and that he would never recover.

While his family insisted he was still able to give them signs including a kiss, House, based on expert testimony, found otherwise. "As a result of the overwhelming evidence that Juan Fernando is incapable of any kind of conscious response, (his sister) Lilian's beliefs that her brother is aware of her and communicating with her are mistaken."


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