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Vermont's Death with Dignity Effort

Vermont 4/11/12 Newspaper by Patient Choices
Vermont 4/11/12 Newspaper by Patient Choices

The effort in Vermont to enact Death with Dignity is different than how the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts became law. Oregon and Washington, like Massachusetts, allow voters to directly decide on proposed laws during elections through an initiative process.

In Vermont, on the other hand, laws may only be enacted through legislative action. Opponents of physician-assisted death have very deep pockets and are able to convince elected officials they don't want to take on a controversial bill about a topic no one likes to talk about—death. They do it time and time again, making a legislative effort an especially difficult challenge.

This year, however, advocates in Vermont made tremendous headway. When I last wrote about Vermont in early March, the State Senate Judiciary Committee had scheduled hearings for the proposed law. In the past month, there've been quite a few developments in Patient Choices Vermont's efforts to support a Death with Dignity law in their state.

The Judiciary Committee heard three hours of emotional testimony from supporters and opponents of the proposed law. Among the supporters was the retired Executive Director of C&C of Oregon, George Eighmey. With his many years of experience working directly with terminally-ill people who requested medication under Oregon's law, he sought to set the record straight with his testimony stating, "The proposed Vermont law is based on one Oregon passed in 1998. In the nearly 14 years since, none of the fears espoused by opponents of Oregon's death-with-dignity bill have come to pass."

And to assuage fears put forth by opponents about a "slippery slope", Eighmey explained, "I can tell you, in the 14 years the law has been in existence and use in the state of Oregon, the only times it's been amended is to address the concerns of those who oppose the law."

Unfortunately—as is common among detractors of Death with Dignity laws—the committee chair, Senator Dick Sears, wasn't swayed by the hours of testimony and didn't change his mind about the bill. In an interview with Vermont Public Radio Senator Sears explained why he wouldn't support the bill going to the Senate floor: "A lot of times bills are votes based upon what I think my constituents want, or what's best for the state of Vermont, what's best for my region, etc, etc. This is one, clearly a vote of conscience."

The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to vote on the bill Friday, March 16th. As reported by WCAX, after an unfortunate injury which hospitalized one of the committee members, Senator Sears met with Governor Peter Shumlin that morning to report he was tabling the bill and wouldn't move it to the full Senate for a vote.

What followed in the weeks after that decision was an onslaught of letters to editors and opinion pieces published in many major Vermont news outlets written by supporters who were outraged the bill wasn't allowed to come to the full Senate for a more open debate. Among the highlights:

From Beth Thorpe from South Burlington in the Burlington Free Press:

Why, why, why is it taking so long to pass a single bill, death with dignity. I am frustrated that three members of the committee don't support the bill so they won't pass it through to the full Senate for a vote. What are they afraid of? I would rather see the whole Senate vote, one way or the other, than have the bill held hostage because some committee members don't support the bill.

State Representative Patsy French from Randolph in VT Digger responded to some of the fear mongering by the opponents, "I would urge that Vermonters move beyond undocumented fears, learn from states that now allow their citizens choices at end of life."

And outspoken advocate, Steven Sinding of Manchester wrote in a thoughtful op-ed:

The popular death with dignity bill, which would give terminally ill Vermonters choice and control at the end of life, should be voted on by the full Senate. It should not be bottled up in a legislative committee by a few powerful lawmakers.

Lastly, Cameron O'Connor from Montpelier stated in a letter to the editor of Montpelier Bridge:

Why don't Senators John Campbell and Richard Sears have courage for a full Senate vote on death with dignity? Vermonters lose faith in our legislators when they don't fulfill their duty to represent their constituents. Although the death with dignity bill may be somewhat controversial, polls have shown that Vermonters overwhelmingly support passage of it. The people want to be able to make their own choices with the advice of their doctors. The bill is not dead! Sears and Campbell should step aside and allow the bill to go to a full vote in the Senate. They need to start listening to their constituents and the people of Vermont.

On Tuesday last week, supporters of the bill worked to give all the Senators an opportunity to vote, and used a Senate rule which allows certain pieces of legislation to be voted on as an amendment instead of as a self-standing bill. The Health and Welfare Committee voted 3-2 to attach the proposal as an amendment of a bill regarding regulation of tanning salons. In order to be considered for a vote, the amendment would have to be considered as germane or related in topic to the bill in which it was attached.

The newly amended bill was scheduled for consideration and a vote last Thursday. In pretty short order, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott, ruled the two measures weren't germane to one another, and the Death with Dignity amendment wouldn't be allowed to proceed for a full vote attached to the bill. Anticipating this move, a Senator who supports Death with Dignity requested for lawmakers to consider suspending the germane rule and to allow a debate and vote on the physician-assisted death proposal.

What followed was unexpected by almost everyone tracking the proceedings. For almost two hours, Senators on both sides of the issue openly discussed and debated the amendment and whether or not to suspend the rules to allow a vote. You can read more about the debates on the Seven Days blog.

Supporters needed 23 votes to suspend the rules and allow a vote. The final tally was 11 votes in favor and 18 against. As WCAX noted in their report of the proceedings:

That 18-11 doesn't necessarily indicate how the Senate stands on the issue, although the supporters of the end of life bill were in that minority 11 who voted to debate the bill Thursday. Several senators made a point Thursday to say this vote is about the rules and following the process. They were very specific about that. So it's still up in the air how divided it is in the Senate.

The final decision not to allow the vote to move forward was disappointing, but it was heartening to witness Death with Dignity finally received an open debate on Vermont's Senate floor for the first time since the dedicated advocates of Patient Choices Vermont started working on their effort ten years ago. This is a major accomplishment and a huge step forward for Vermont's movement to allow more options when facing a terminal illness.

In a press release posted on Patient Choices Vermont's website, Dick Walters, president of the organization stated, "Despite this decision, we appreciate the attempt by our Senate supporters to bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote. We celebrate their courage and willingness to discuss an issue that is so important to so many Vermonters. We look forward to the day when all Vermont legislators get a chance to vote on the Death with Dignity bill."

Posted on April 16, 2012 in In the News, New England, Vermont

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