Friday, March 19, 2010
Physicians and State Go Toe-to-Toe in the Assisted Suicide Debate
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All rights reserved.
FAIRFIELD COUNTY WEEKLY, W/O MARCH 18
In the red corner, wearing white lab coats and carrying life ending doses of medication, the physicians. In the blue corner, wearing serious-looking corporate suits and carrying stacks of legal statutes, state legislators. The ref, in this case, a Connecticut state judge, calls the two sides to the middle of the canvas. They touch gloves and begin to spar.
It’s a match that’s been played over and over in legal arenas for more than four decades. The issue at hand: the argument that “aid in dying” is not assisted suicide. The undercard in the latest round is heavyweights Gary Blick, MD, an HIV/AIDS specialist in Greenwich, CT, and Ronald M. Levine, MD, an internist in Greenwich, CT. This past October, they took the latest swing, filing a legal challenge against Connecticut’s assisted-suicide statute. Only Oregon, Washington and Montana presently allow physician-assisted suicide so this is an important new frontier for proponents.
The statute states that a person is guilty of second-degree manslaughter if “he intentionally causes or aids another person, other than by force, duress or deception, to commit suicide.”
Over the past two decades, Blick and Levine have been approached by terminally ill patients – those with terrible, chronic pain and little quality of life but nonetheless mentally competent -- with the hope that the physicians could prescribe lethal doses of medication to end their suffering. While sympathetic, the duo has shunned the requests. To concede would be potentially committing manslaughter in the eyes of the law. They argue that the statute should be changed to accommodate methods of assisted dying, as physicians should not have to fear punishment, and that patients have a constitutional right to die with dignity in this manner.
A recent CPTV documentary titled “The Suicide Tourist”, addressed Americans’ challenges with getting access to physician-assisted end-of-life care. It chronicled the experience of Chicagoan Craig Ewert, who suffered from terminal Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Ewert had to travel to Switzerland to seek the aid of Dignitas, a non-profit that has helped over 1,000 people die in the past 12 years. With a known date and time for ending his life, it was easier for him and his family to prepare, enjoy final quality moments and put their house in order. The aid in dying was provided with dignity in a private, tranquil flat, with attendants that were reassuring and medications that made the process painless.
On March 8th in Hartford Superior Court, the doctors’ case came before Judge Julia Aurigemma, with the state seeking dismissal. According to a spokesman for the doctors, Steve Hopcraft, founder of Stephen K. Hopcraft Communications Consulting, the judge has 120 days to rule on the state’s motion. Hopcraft felt confident about the case, saying, “We wouldn’t have brought it if there wasn’t a good chance to win.”
Besides the doctors, Hopcraft serves nonprofit and public interest organizations, like Denver-based Compassion & Choices, which has a strong interest in the outcome of the case. The group “uses the power of choice and comfort to restore hope to individuals and their loved ones at the end of life,” providing advance directives, local service referrals, and pain and symptom management. They also promote informed end-of-life decision making by educating the public and advising health care professionals.
Hopcraft says the most significant opposition proponents face is the Connecticut Catholic Conference of Bishops. “We’re not a big organization,” says Hopcraft, “while the church has lots of resources. We raise money and awareness as we go.”
He finds it outrageous that “the Pope’s interpretation of some biblical passage and that the council of one faith should presume to impose on anyone their will” and that the bishops are “out of step.” He summarizes that the Conference is essentially saying that knocking you out and starving you to death is all legal and holy… but an adult, terminally ill, mentally competent person with no signs of depression overriding their ability to make a decision and who wants to die in peace is illegal, immoral and unholy?”
How can Connecticut voters who support the doctors’ position help? Hopcraft suggests they give what they can to help groups like Compassion & Choices spread the word, initiate citizen referendums and get on ballots.
“Doctors Blick and Levine are people who deserve the support of all of us. People that feel strongly should join Compassion & Choices to try to change Connecticut law and help others that have been prosecuted for helping terminally ill patients,” advises Hopcraft.In conclusion, he adds, “It’s only people with resources that have any real end-of-life choices,