Two Connecticut physicians are asking the court to clarify a 1969 law that they believe is vague about whether its proper for a physician to help a terminally ill patient end their life.
“I’ve seen many patients in agony,” Dr. Gary Blick, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said at a Capitol press conference Wednesday.
The only choice these patients currently have is prolonged anguish, Blick said.
Blick said there are medications that will help ease the pain of dying, but it renders a patient unconscious in the days or weeks prior to their death. He said he would like to be able to prescribe medication that a patient can take on their own to end their life with dignity.
Under the current interpretation of the law, if Blick did prescribe medication to aid in the dying process, then he could be charged with manslaughter.
In 2004, Huntington Williams of Cornwall was charged with manslaughter for supporting his friend John Welles in ending his life.
Welles was living alone and dying from advanced prostate cancer. Williams said his friend made it known that he wanted to end his life. So one day Williams made sure the .38 caliber revolver was operable and handed it back to Welles.
“John loaded the gun and walked, with the aid of a walker, out into his garden. He lay down and I suggested where to aim the gun,” Williams said. “I walked 100 yards up the driveway and called out ‘God Bless…’, but before I got to the ‘you’ out I heard the gun fire.”
He then went back to determine if Welles had been successful and called 911. Six months later he was charged with manslaughter. He was later convicted on the charge, but was given accelerated rehabilitation instead of prison time.
“It’s time for the courts to make it clear that John Welles deserved better, that I deserved better, and that terminal patients and their families in our great state of Connecticut deserve better,” Williams said.
Sheldon Smith, 86, said he hopes for a favorable outcome from the lawsuit because he is concerned about how the end of his life will unfold.
Smith, who has fourth-stage abdominal cancer, said he knows the type of pain his cancer can cause and would like a physician to be able to prescribe medication to help bring about a peaceful death, if the dying process becomes unbearable.
“I’ve still got a pulse so I’m here,” Smith announced as he got to the podium.
He said he wants to keep living as long as he can, but if the pain is too much to bear, “I want to leave this world with the same dignity with which I’ve lived my life.”
Kathryn Tucker, the lead attorney in the case said that this is the first time the Connecticut court will be asked to look at this law.
Tucker said the goal of the lawsuit is to get some clarity on the existing law.
“What is the reach of that statute?” is the question the court will have to answer, Tucker said.
Oregon and Washington are the only two states that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives by taking medications prescribed by a physician. Oregon’s law was enacted in 1997 and Washington’s was approved by voters last fall. In Oregon and Washington the law sent by the legislature to be approved by the voters. No such, ballot initiative exists in Connecticut.
“I certainly think that the legislature can address this issue. I think it has not yet done so in Connecticut,” Tucker said.
There was a bill introduced last year to address this issue, but it was promptly dismissed by the Judiciary Committee, following the dismissal of another controversial bill dealing with the Catholic Church.
Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said the church opposes the initiation of this lawsuit and is considering intervening, however, no decision has been made yet about whether it would get involved.
“Life is sacred from conception to natural death,” Culhane said. “This lawsuit and any legislative efforts that would be forthcoming as a result of the lawsuit is something we would oppose.”
Kim Grzybala contributed to this report.