Assisted suicide bill unlikely to leave committee

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(Host) Legislative leaders say it’s unlikely that a bill to legalize assisted suicide will pass this year. The chairmen of both the House and Senate Health and Welfare Committees are leery of the legislation. But proponents say the issue deserves attention in the Statehouse.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Those who support physician assisted suicide would like Vermont to become the second state in the country to pass the legislation. The bill is modeled after a law in Oregon. It would allow a terminally ill person who is mentally competent to get a prescription from a doctor to hasten death.

The legislation must first clear the House and Senate Welfare Committees. And its prospects don’t look good.

(Koch) "I fully expect that it is going to hang right on the wall, where it is now."

(Dillon) Representative Thomas Koch is a Barre Republican who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee. In the Statehouse, when a bill hangs on a wall, it means the legislation does not move ahead for a vote.

(Koch) "I may be one of the more sympathetic people to it. And I do not favor moving it this year."

(Dillon) On the Senate side, the bill also lacks support. Senator James Leddy, the Chittenden County Democrat who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, says four out six committee members oppose the legislation.

In the House, Chairman Koch says he’ll convene public hearings in early February for a broad review of long-term care and end of life issues.

(Koch) "I think we need a lot more public discussion and consensus. I’m not sure the legislation is the way to handle this in the first place. I’m very sympathetic to the idea that under the right circumstances people should be able to make their final decision themselves and have assistance so that it can be a respectable experience. But how we go about doing that, I’m not sure and I think we need a lot more discussion."

(Dillon) Those who support the bill are disappointed in the legislative reaction. Doctor Richard Austin is a retired surgeon from Shelburne and a member of Death with Dignity Vermont.

(Austin) "It strikes me that the polls done in Vermont and nationwide show that Vermonters and citizens of the whole country are in favor of this legislation. And for our legislators to ignore the majority, or the voices of their constituents, bothers me. It seems too bad that a committee chairman can leave it on the wall, as they say, even though their constituents want it considered."

(Dillon) Supporters say the bill does not authorize euthanasia. They say that the decision to die is always left in the hands of the patient, not a physician. Doctor Austin says he hopes that the personal stories and testimony at the hearings will sway lawmakers on the issue.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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