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Five Years of Death with Dignity in Vermont

May 20, 2018

Five years ago, Vermont became the first state to pass an assisted-dying law through the legislative process. The campaign for death with dignity in the Green Mountain State was more than a decade in the making and involved close collaboration between Death with Dignity National Center and our state partner organization, Patient Choices Vermont, which led the charge at the grassroots and continues its mission of education and advocacy.

Earlier this week, Patient Choices Vermont commemorated the historic anniversary with an event at the state capital in Montpelier. Political leaders and the family members of patients who had used the law shared personal stories about the fight for death with dignity as well as the peace and comfort the option provided to loved ones who otherwise would have faced unbearable suffering in their final days.

Patient Choices Vermont President Betsy Walkerman speaking at the Montpelier event

“A cause I feel in my heart”

The late Dick Walters and his wife, Ginny, formed the heart and soul of the death with dignity movement in Vermont starting in 2002, when they founded Patient Choices Vermont. In 2015, Dick used the law to hasten his own death.

“Death with Dignity is a cause I feel in my heart, soul, and conscience,” Dick wrote before he died. “It is worthy of every one of us who values life, treasures dignity, and wants never to be told by a stranger or a bureaucrat that our life is not our own, or that suffering is the property of their law or morality.”

Ginny Walters and her daughter, Betsy Walkerman, carry his legacy forward as they continue to grow Patient Choices Vermont’s support base, educate supporters about the law, and provide data that demonstrates the law has worked exactly as intended.

Both women joined Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman during one of his recent Facebook Live town halls to recount the story of the campaign for death with dignity, as well as Patient Choices Vermont’s plans for the future.

The Early Days of the Campaign

Zuckerman, who served in Vermont’s House of Representatives from 1997-2011 and the state Senate from 2013-2017 before assuming his current position, recalled meeting with Dick Walters in 2002 to discuss the possibility of introducing aid-in-dying legislation.

At the same time, our predecessor organization, Oregon Death with Dignity, was working with the Walters to launch an official campaign in the Green Mountain State. Oregon Death with Dignity was involved from the beginning, providing written political strategy and participating in many phone calls with Dick’s group in order to build a successful campaign.

“He had no idea it would take so long,” Walters recalled.

Vermont Lieutanant Governor David Zuckerman speaking at the Montpelier event

Building Support

Indeed, the Legislature would introduce numerous bills between 2003 and 2011 that stalled in committee. But each year brought incremental progress, driven by the grassroots efforts supported by the Death with Dignity National Center.

“In the meantime, we put together more people,” Walters said. “We had a couple of retired doctors who were good at speaking and explaining concept [of death with dignity]. A retired professor from the University of Vermont had the idea of building a database of supporters by spreading the word at town meetings.”

While the Walters grew a grassroots network of supporters, we provided strategic guidance, became a fiscal agent for Patient Choices Vermont, raised significant funds for a robust and sustained on-the-ground campaign, and built broad-based support via electronic communications and media outreach.

Moving Toward a Tipping Point

A breakthrough came in 2011, when Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin made death with dignity legislation part of his re-election campaign platform. His endorsement of assisted dying—and voters’ support of him—galvanized support in the Legislature.

Death with Dignity Executive Director Peg Sandeen and Board President George Eighmey traveled repeatedly to Vermont to meet with Governor Shumlin, legislators, and lobbyists.

A bill introduced in the 2012 session failed to pass, but it represented the first time assisted-dying legislation had been debated on the Senate floor.

Victory in 2013

Vermont State Senator Claire Ayer and State Representative Shap Smith were influential in introducing Act 39 in the 2013 legislative session. The full Vermont State Legislature passed the bill on May 13, 2013, and Vermont made history. On May 20, Governor Shumlin signed Act 39 (S.77) into law.

“Since then, Vermont has led the way,” Walters said. “We have been working to educate the healthcare community about how the law works and what is available to make sure everybody knows that nobody who doesn’t want to participate needs to participate.”

A report released by the Vermont Department of Health in January 2018 showed that 52 Vermonters qualified to obtain medication under Act 39 from May 31, 2013 to June 30, 2017. Of those 52, 29 used the medication to hasten their death. Betsy Walkerman noted that the law has been used sparingly, “with no cases of coercion.”

“A Huge Comfort”

Two years after Vermont’s historic vote to pass Act 39, Dick Walters, dying of cancer, used the law to hasten his own death. Walkerman recalled the peace of mind Act 39 brought to her father in his final days.

“It was a huge comfort to him,” Walkerman said. “He was able to get on the phone or email and make sure all friends knew [the week he had chosen to take the medication] was the week to call. He said he had the most meaningful discussions of his life around that time. It was a very intentional way to connect with people in a way that he would not have been able to if he were on intense pain medication.”

Sharing Dick’s story is just one way Walkerman and Walters are honoring his memory. They continue to educate Vermonters about the law, stressing that death with dignity is but one of a host of end-of-life options available to the terminally ill. They also have worked to defend the law from the continuous legislative and legal challenges brought by opponents, including an unsuccessful court challenge and multiple bills introduced in 2017.

Citizen Democracy in Action

This week’s event at the Statehouse was an opportunity for “families to tell their stories and for us to thank the legislative leaders and people who worked so hard to make this possible,” Walkerman said. The movement to bring death with dignity to Vermont is “a great example of citizen democracy.”

“It took a core group of folks to get the ball rolling,” Zuckerman said. “A dedicated group that [started] reaching out and building awareness.”

“You call it dedication,” Walters said, smiling. “I call it stubbornness!”

Call it what you will. What matters is that the grassroots work of Patient Choices Vermont and its supporters has led to lasting change.

We will continue to support local leaders as they work to ensure Vermonters are able to die with comfort, autonomy, and control.

Photos courtesy of Stephen Kastner, DesignWise Studios

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