Debate Begins On ‘Death With Dignity’ Bill

Print More

(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would allow patients to get medication to end their lives.

The "death with dignity" bill, also known as assisted suicide, has been controversial in the Statehouse.

And as VPR’s John Dillon reports, its prospects for passage remain uncertain.

(Dillon) Bennington Senator Dick Sears chairs the Judiciary Committee. He’s been reluctant to take up the right to die or assisted suicide legislation. He said he agreed to only after hearing from his constituents, and Governor Peter Shumlin, who supports the legislation.

But Sears opened the hearing with a disclaimer of sorts:

(Sears) "I want to just make perfectly clear to everybody: Nobody has promised anything beyond the hearings that are scheduled for today and for tomorrow."

(Dillon) The Vermont bill is modeled after an Oregon law that allows terminally ill patients to receive prescriptions that they can use to end their lives.

Proponents say the legislation has plenty of safeguards. These include a provision that says mentally incapacitated patients would not be eligible to get the drugs, and a requirement that a second physician confirm the patient’s diagnosis.

The state Medical Society – representing Vermont’s 1,400 physicians – is opposed to the bill. Paul Harrington is the society’s executive vice president. He says the bill would violate medical ethics and interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

Harrington says physicians are currently allowed to prescribe medication to ease a patient’s pain, even if the drug could also hasten death.

(Harrington) "That is certainly acceptable and permissible and accepted practice under medical ethics. You flip that on its head and if the intentionality of the prescription is to lead to death, then that under current medical ethics is not acceptable."

(Dillon) But Doctor Fred Crowley, a former head of the Medical Society, says the legislation would empower patients by giving them control over the end of their lives.

(Crowley) "I mean if there’s anything more personal than the manner in which you chose to accept the terms of your death, I don’t know what is more personal. I see it as a civil liberties argument."

(Dillon) The Medical Society says the bill would discourage effective palliative care in which doctors help patients manage pain at the end of their lives.

But Crowley says the experience in Oregon shows strong support for hospice services and palliative care.

(Crowley) "I do think also that the Medical Society’s stance is actually hurting its own members because when there are firm statutes in the law saying, ‘You can do this; you cannot do that; this is the procedure,’ then there are safe harbors for physicians."

(Dillon) The end of this week marks the deadline for bills to move out of committee and to the floor for a vote. And the prospects for the end of life bill are far from certain. Judiciary Committee Chairman Sears says the panel will decide later this week whether to hold a public hearing.

(Sears) "I don’t know how far it will go. It’s up to the committee if we go that route. Otherwise the bill would be dead."

(Dillon) Right now, there may not be enough votes in the committee to move the bill forward.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Comments are closed.