Vermont Moves to Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide

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Vermonters flocked to a public hearing on the topic of physician-assisted death last month. (Courtesy of Death With Dignity National Center)

 

Montpelier, Vt. – Last Thursday, the Vermont state Senate passed a bill by a margin of 22-8 to allow Vermont physicians to help terminally-ill patients take lethal dosages of prescription drugs.

Passage of the bill came only after many hours of debate in a deeply divided senatorial chamber. Although the bill passed by a considerable margin on Thursday, the bill narrowly avoided termination the previous Tuesday after the Senate voted 17-13 against the judiciary committee’s recommendation to kill the bill.

The bill now moves on to the Vermont House — which will either pass the bill with the changes made by the Senate, or make changes of its own.

If the House passes the bill, Vermont will become only the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, behind Oregon and Washington.

“The Vermont legislature is poised to pass an Oregon-like Death with Dignity bill,” reported George Eighmey of the Death With Dignity National Center (DDNC) on Feb. 6.

The debate about physician-assisted suicide first exploded onto the American legal scene in 1906 when a piece of legislation calling for the legalization of physician-assisted euthanasia was introduced to the General Assembly of Ohio.

In 1999 the highly publicized conviction of Jacob Kevorkian — a highly controversial Michigan medical practitioner who spearheaded a movement for medical euthanasia and was dubbed “Dr. Death” by critics — brought the issue of assisted suicide to the national fore.

Today, contention surrounding the issue continues — beginning with the very name given to the process. Critics of the process call it “assisted suicide,” while proponents call it “death with dignity.”

Proponents of the principle emphasize that people have “the right to die,” and that the process can save patients from tremendous amounts of pain and suffering. These people also claim that reasonable laws can be constructed to safeguard human life and ensure that death with dignity would only occur in appropriate cases.

The DDNC rigidly defines the demographic of patients who are eligible for death with dignity.

“We advocate for … physician-assisted death,” said the DDNC in an official release. “Terminally-ill patients who are mentally competent to make their own medical care decisions may request a prescription of medication to hasten their deaths.”

Critics of the process of “assisted suicide” claim that the process would put undue pressure on terminally ill patients and their families to pull the plug, and that the process would allow for unnecessary deaths and other abuses. Critics also stress the fact that doctors will have too much power.

The state of Oregon became the first to explicitly sanction physician-assisted suicide with the passage of the Death with Dignity Act in 1994. Since that time, referendums have occurred in numerous states, but only the state of Washington — which passed a Death with Dignity Act in 2008 — has achieved legal success.

As Vermont draws one step closer to joining the ranks of Oregon and Washington with the passage of the legislation last week, it is important to critically examine the language of the legislation as a way to understand the two sides of the debate.

When introduced last Tuesday, the bill considered by the Vermont Senate was a comprehensive program for end-of-life care in Vermont — one that allowed for the prescription of life-ending drugs to terminally-ill patients with less than six months to live.

The bill passed on Tuesday in its comprehensive form when four previously undecided Senate members chose to vote in favor of the bill to continue the discussion.

On Wednesday, however, Sen. Peter Galbraith (D) and Sen. Bob Hartwell (D) halted the easy passage of the bill by proposing an amendment that radically altered the extensive bill. The amendment replaced the lengthy bill that would have allowed the prescription of life-ending drugs with a brief substitute bill that simply gives legal protection to doctors whose patients self-administer lethal doses of drugs.

When consideration of the bill resumed on Thursday, the rhetoric in support of both sides of the argument was impassioned. Senate members recommended a number of amendments, all of which were debated at great length.

Two final amendments emerged — one that was put forth by Sen. John Rodgers (D) and one that was advanced by Sen. Ann Cummings (D). Rodgers’s bill restored much of the original text of the bill, while Cummings’s greatly abbreviated it. Rodgers’s bill contains many safeguards designed to protect Vermonters from misuse of the death with dignity option, while Cummings’ shortened bill focused instead on limiting the scope of the bill.

After an intermission designed to safely lower heart rates, members of the Senate chose Cummings’s pared-down version of the bill and approved it to be sent through to the House.

While proponents of the initial bill were disappointed by the outcome because of the watered-down language of the final product, proponents of physician-assisted euthanasia see the passage of the bill through the Senate as a step in the right direction.

In an interview with Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz, Sen. Dick Sears (D) expressed his satisfaction with the proceedings of the Senate, if not with the outcome.

“I’d have rather seen the bill die,” said Spears. “But I think the system worked as it was designed. All sides were heard and, in the end, the bill passed.”

It is likely that the House will make sweeping changes to the legislation due to the haste with which the changes to the bill were made and the highly abbreviated nature of the product.

Many commentators expect that much of the original language and content of the bill will be restored, while others expect the House to maintain the sparse language and limited scope of the amended legislation. Either way, the House faces an important decision with numerous ramifications for end-of-life care for Vermonters.