Lawmakers Face Tough Bill On ‘Right To Die’

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(Host) Legislation has been introduced at the Statehouse that will allow doctors to prescribe life ending medications to terminally ill patients.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the bill has a fair amount of support. But it also has some strong critics.

(Kinzel) This is a case where the words used to frame an issue can have a big impact.  Backers of this legislation refer to it as "the Death with Dignity" bill while opponents call it "physician assisted suicide."

The Vermont bill is patterned after a law in Oregon.  The legislation gives doctors the authority to prescribe life ending drugs to terminally ill patients who have less than 6 months to live.  The doctor must find the patient to be mentally sound and the individual must request the medication on three different occasions.

Former House Speaker Richard Mallory supports the bill because he says it’s an issue of patient choice.

(Mallory) "If I had to characterize it all I would say maybe it’s a Libertarian issue. It is the right of individuals to make decisions for themselves. That’s the fundamental reason that I support it."

(Kinzel) Aaron Loomis’s father died of cancer two years ago. His dad stopped his chemo treatments because they were too painful and he told his family he wanted to die. His doctors told him starvation was the only option.

(Loomis) "Every one of those final days my father would look at us, my sister and my brother, and say ‘please, please help me end the suffering’. But we could not grant his final wish, for we had no choice. Indeed, my father had no choice."

(Kinzel) Ed Paquin is the president of the Coalition for Disability Rights.  He opposes the bill because he’s worried it will be abused.

(Paquin ) "Individuals, I’m sure, can and will feel pressure to end their life in some situations and I think it’s a sad direction to be going in."

(Kinzel) And Paquin says the legislation sends a disturbing message to the state’s disability community.

(Paquin) "In a sense there’s an equation of lack of dignity with some of those circumstances of life that people with disabilities very often have to live with."

(Kinzel) Governor Peter Shumlin supports the bill and hopes lawmakers will pass it during the current session.

(Shumlin) "I don’t think it hurts us as a state to have the conversation about what kind of treatment do you want if you’re terminally ill, your doctor knows that you’re going to die, you’re in a lot of pain – how do you want to spend the last 4 or 5 days."

(Kinzel) A similar bill was considered by lawmakers in 2007 and was defeated in the House by a vote of 82 to 63. Backers of the legislation say they’re optimistic that they will win the vote this year.

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

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