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NRL News
Page 23
June 2010
Volume 37
Issue 6

Connecticut Judge Rejects Challenge to State Law Banning Assisted Suicide

By Jennifer Popik, J.D.

A ruling in early June by a Superior Court judge means that Connecticut is the latest state to stave off the increasing push to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Judge Julia Aurigemma rejected a suit brought by two doctors and supported by the pro-euthanasia Compassion & Choices which sought to circumvent the state’s statute against assisted suicide by relabeling it “aid in dying.”

Currently, only Oregon and Washington have passed referenda specifically authorizing physician-assisting suicide. Early this year, the Montana Supreme Court, although not finding a constitutional right to assisted suicide, found that there was no public policy preventing assisting suicide.

Under Connecticut law, it is the crime of manslaughter to “intentionally cause or aid another person, other than by force, duress or deception, to commit suicide.” Backed by Compassion & Choices, physicians Ronald Levine and Gary Blick filed a lawsuit last year seeking a court ruling to declare that the state statute did not forbid physician “aid in dying.”

In dismissing the suit, Aurigemma wrote that the legislature clearly intended to prohibit physician-assisted suicide when it adopted the language in its criminal code. “The statute in question ... and the commentary to and legislative history of the statute make it quite clear that assisting a suicide, even for humanitarian reasons, is a crime,” she wrote.

In Connecticut, assisted-suicide activists had failed three times in the legislature (in 1995, 1997, and 2009) to overturn the state’s protection for victims of assisted suicide. In her ruling, Aurigemma cited these “legislative attempts to amend state law to allow doctors to help dying patients end their lives,” according to the Hartford Courant. “If it were already allowed, she noted, there would have been no need to change the law.”

Indeed, Aurigemma wrote, “[The statute] is aimed at precisely the situation presented by the plaintiffs—aiding a terminally ill patient, in unbearable pain, to end his or her own life—and precisely the situation in which physicians are most likely to participate.”

The typical approach of assisted-suicide activists has been to attempt to convince lawmakers and voters that assisted suicide is a “medical treatment.” They have also worked through the courts, using the same argument that suicide is somehow one of many other “medical treatments.”

Overwhelmingly, voters and lawmakers have seen through this, and have ensured the protection of the sick and vulnerable who are looking for comfort and encouragement at the end of their lives. While many courts have addressed constitutional questions connected with assisted suicide, this case, using a nuanced legal strategy, attempted to have the court redefine “assisted suicide” as “aid in dying.”

Compassion & Choices is the major organization leading efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the United States and was the driving force behind the Connecticut lawsuit, with its legal director, Kathryn Tucker, representing the plaintiffs. According to its web site, the organization is considering an appeal.

This victory in Connecticut comes on the heels of grim new reports from the Oregon and Washington health departments. While Oregon, with its numbers of assisted suicides generally trending up, is in its 12th year of legalization, Washington has only reported one year of numbers.

One disturbing similarity between the two states is the lack of psychiatric referrals. Last year, there was much attention given to the fact that Oregon had in fact made no referrals.

This year Oregon referred 8.4% of patients while Washington referred 7% of patients. Few people, if any, simply sit down and make a cool, rational decision to commit suicide. In fact, studies have indicated that 93–94% of those committing suicide suffer from some identifiable mental disorder. This is a clear example of how these sorts of laws hurt the vulnerable, who are in need of assistance and compassion, not death.

Connecticut remains firmly with the overwhelming block of states who understand this and protect their sick and vulnerable.