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March 9, 2010 - Doctor's Role with Terminal Patients Argued in Conn. Court

The question of whether a doctor can be charged with manslaughter for helping a patient end his life came before a Connecticut Superior Court judge Monday.

The state, represented by Associate Attorney General Perry Zinn-Rowthorn, sought to persuade Judge Julia Aurigemma that a suit by a right-to-life group should be dismissed.

On the other side, Daniel Krisch, representing two doctors who sued the state, argued a doctor helping a terminally ill patient die with dignity should not be arrested under the state's assisted-suicide law.

The law says helping someone commit suicide is second-degree manslaughter, a Class C felony. The plaintiffs claim a doctor prescribing medication to a terminally ill, mentally competent patient is providing end-of-life care, not aiding suicide.

Zinn-Rowthorn said the suit, seeking a declaratory judgment from Aurigemma, is improper because it is asking the judge to legislate. Ruling for the doctors, he said, would "risk serious harms to public health and it would intrude on the legislators' prerogative" to decide public policy.

Among Zinn-Rowthorn's reasons were that there is no patient who is in imminent need, so the medical state of anyone requesting this assistance is unknown.

He said the General Assembly has refused to change the law to make an exception for doctors, but a bill introduced last year had "14 pages of definitions, of restrictions, oversight, check that were built into the legislation."

There would be no such protections if aid in dying was approved by a judge's order rather than legislation, he said.

Krisch argued "there is a growing consensus" in the medical community differentiating suicide from aid in dying. "This is an appropriate medical treatment option for patients to be able to discuss with their doctors," he said.

He said the doctors involved have had patients request medication to end their lives, people who are "suffering real, horrible diseases ... facing very real, very hard choices."

Krisch said if doctors were allowed to prescribe lethal medications the legislature would create needed safeguards. "Doctors are not going to go around willy-nilly. Doctors are bound by medical ethics," he said.

"It won't be the Wild West of aid in dying."

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