House rejects ‘Death with Dignity’ legislation

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After a lengthy and emotional debate, the Vermont House has rejected legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to request drugs from their doctor to hasten an individual’s death.

The bill was rejected by a vote of 82 to 63, and it marks the first time that the Legislature has held a full debate over this issue.

Today’s action effectively ends the discussion of "Death with Dignity" at the statehouse for the current biennium.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) It’s not very often that lawmakers engage in a debate like the one that occurred over this bill.

For many legislators this is a deeply personal issue that reflects their feelings on life and death, and on spirituality and religion. The political parties took no formal stand on the legislation and made it clear to each member that they were free to vote their conscience.

Many lawmakers reported that they’ve received more calls, letters and emails from their constituents on this issue this winter than any other piece of legislation.

Under the bill, a person who’s been diagnosed with less than 6 months to live and is experiencing severe pain would be allowed to request medication from their doctor that would accelerate their death.

The legislation establishes a multi part process where the patient must make oral and written requests that will be reviewed by two doctors.

Londonderry Rep. Rick Hube urged his colleagues to support the bill:

(Hube) "In the end I’ve come to a point where I support this legislation that I know is intensely personal. I know we all have different perspectives, for all sorts of different reasons. I’m not even sure what I will do if and when that time comes. But for me, I want the ability to make that decision whether, I choose to exercise that or not."

Lincoln Rep. Michael Fisher said some doctors in Vermont are already administering lethal doses of medication to relieve severe pain. He says the bill is needed to bring this practice out in the open:

(Fisher) "So the question is not whether or not we want physician aided dying in Vermont – we have it. The question is do we want this to happen in a reportable knowable way, or do we want to create safeguards to assure that there isn’t one population or another population that’s being taken advantage of here? Do we want to make sure there isn’t coercion.?"

But Pittsford Rep. Peg Flory said she was very concerned about the message that this bill sends to society as a whole:

(Flory) "We can call it many things, but what it is, unquestionably, is the state saying ‘it’s ok for a doctor to be able to prescribe something who’s total – total- goal is to end that patient’s life.’ It’s not to take away pain, it’s to end that patient’s life."

Topsham Rep. Bud Otterman also strongly opposed the legislation:

(Otterman) "We need not apologize for our record here in Vermont, nor should we adopt increasingly radical concepts which intrude on strongly held beliefs of fellow citizens who place special emphasis on the sanctity of human life. In my view, H44 goes too far in forcing one group’s preference upon the traditional values of others."

While similar bills have been introduced in previous legislative sessions, this year is the first time that the measure has been approved by the House Human Services committee and sent to the floor of the House for a full debate.

For VPR news, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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