Hearings Begin On Assisted Death Bill

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The Vermont Senate Health and Welfare Committee has started its week-long review of one of the most controversial and emotional issues of the session.

A bill under consideration would allow physicians to prescribe drugs to help terminally ill people end their lives.

Supporters call the issue death with dignity, while opponents refer to it as physician assisted suicide and the different approaches underscore how emotional this bill is for many people.

Senate Health and Welfare chair Claire Ayer says she scheduled a week of testimony on the legislation because she wants her panel to vote on it by the end of the week.

"It’s on the front burner but only because we’ve been looking at it for so long," says Ayer. "Every member of this committee has been through this process at least once… so it isn’t new to any of us and we’re just sort of getting it out of the way and moving on. It’s one of the things we want to get done." 

Former Governor Madeleine Kunin was the lead witness. Her brother, former state senator Edgar May, died recently after suffering from several health complications. She urged the panel to pass the bill.

"It is not an easy thing to do but it is the right thing to do," Kunin said. "You know, my brother and I didn’t always vote the same way but I’m quite convinced if he could he would have testified today and I’m quite sure we would have voted the same way in favor of patient choice."

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says the bill requires a physician to find that the patient is of sound mind, suffering from a terminal illness, and has two non family members who willing to testify that the patient was under no duress in making their decision.  

"There are many, many protections in this bill to avoid undue influence on Vermonters in making this most personal of decisions,"Sorrell says.

Mark Kaufman of the Vermont Center for Independent Living says his group opposes the bill for several reasons.

"I have an immense amount of sympathy for people who are in intractable pain we have the new palliative care bill that started last year to help with that as much as possible hospice is improving everywhere," Kaufman says. "Our concern at the Center is this might not be a choice. The opportunity for abuse and coercion is still there and one mistake is too many."

The president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care, Edward Mahoney, says many doctors oppose this bill.

"I think the vast majority of physicians do not see this as part of their Hippocratic Oath, their duty to care for patients in the best possible way," he says.

It’s likely that the Senate Health and Welfare committee will vote in favor of the bill on Friday.

The legislation will then go to the Judiciary committee where it faces an uncertain future but Senate leaders have vowed to bring the issue to the floor even if the Judiciary committee takes a negative vote on the bill.

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