Doctors: Can We Be Prosecuted In State For Aiding Terminally Ill?
By Arielle Levin Becker, The Hartford Courant, October 7, 2009
State law prohibits a person from intentionally helping someone commit suicide. Now a group of doctors is asking if that same law prohibits doctors from agreeing to a terminally ill patient’s request to prescribe medication the patient could use to end his life.
In a lawsuit against the state, the doctors are asking the court to clarify whether the law allows physicians to be prosecuted for prescribing medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients who could use it to end their lives. The lawsuit argues that they should not be prosecuted, said Kathryn Tucker, an attorney for the doctors and director of legal affairs for the national end-of-life-care advocacy group Compassion & Choices.
“In some sense, the underlying question is do we consider the choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death, do we consider that suicide, or is it something different,” Tucker said. “And our argument will be that it is very much different.”
If the suit succeeds, Tucker said, it could serve as a model for addressing end-of-life cases in other states with similarly worded laws.
A spokesman for the group said the suit was filed late Tuesday. A copy could not be obtained Tuesday night, and both the spokesman and Tucker said they would not release the suit or the names of the plaintiffs before a press conference this morning.
Only two states, Oregon and Washington, allow terminally ill patients to end their lives by taking lethal medications prescribed by a physician. Washington’s law was approved by voters last fall; Oregon’s law was enacted in 1997. In Oregon, 88 patients received prescriptions for lethal medications in 2008, according to a report published by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Of those, 54 took the medication, 22 died of underlying disease and 12 were still alive at the end of the year. In addition, six people with earlier prescriptions died from taking the medications in 2008.
In other states, Tucker said, doctors who treat patients with terminal illnesses face questions from patients who wish to end their lives, and some help them in covert ways. Sometimes, she said, patients turn to family members or friends for help.
“Right now in Connecticut, if you are a terminally ill patient and you are trapped in a dying process that you find unbearable, which does happen from time to time, you don’t currently have the freedom to turn to your physician and ask that physician to provide a prescription for medication that you could choose to consume to bring about a peaceful death and to end the suffering that you find unbearable,” Tucker said. “And the reason why is that physicians in Connecticut have assumed that an old, vague Connecticut law that allows criminal prosecution of a person who assists another to ‘commit suicide'” could be used to prosecute them.
Connecticut residents who have helped terminally ill friends or relatives end their lives have been prosecuted.
In 2005, Cornwall resident Huntington Williams was charged with second-degree manslaughter after allegedly helping his friend, John T. Welles, 66, kill himself the year before. Welles had advanced prostate cancer that had metastasized into his bones. Williams was at Welles’ home to care for him.
A warrant for Williams’ arrest described the two men’s actions before Welles died: Welles went into his bedroom to get his gun. Williams cleaned it. Welles loaded it. Williams carried it outside, and both men discussed where Welles should aim it. The men shook hands, and Williams headed down his friend’s driveway. Within minutes, Welles died of a self- inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Williams called police. Dozens of Cornwall residents showed up in court to support Williams. Eventually, he was granted a special form of probation allowing first-time offenders to avoid jail and a criminal record.
Williams said Tuesday that he supports the doctors’ lawsuit. He plans to attend and speak at today’s press conference because he feels strongly about helping others who might end up in the position he was in.
“As people get older and their health is bound to decline, then there could very readily be a fear of becoming incapacitated and not being able to control their own destiny,” he said. “I think that’s where a lot of the emphasis should be placed.”
Williams said he did not think any change in the law or policy would be widely used.
“I suspect if all goes well, in the future, when this is passed, that there’ll be a very small percentage of elderly people that do this,” he said. “But it’s that few that need it that’s important.”