Senate Democrats Wrangle Over Death With Dignity Bill

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(Host) A bill that would allow terminally ill patients to get medication to end their own lives faces an uncertain prospect in the Vermont Senate.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, two key Democrats are opposed to the measure, and they say lawmakers have more important priorities.

(Dillon) Windsor Democrat John Campbell is the Senate President Pro Tem, a position that allows him to control the flow of legislation. He opposes the end of life bill, but insists he’s not using his power to block it. Campbell says he made that point clear to advocates.

(Campbell) "As I said to them at the beginning that I am looking at this, approaching it, as a single individual senator, not as the President Pro Tem. And I explained to them I would neither hinder nor help the bill one way or the other by using the office in a way, by putting pressure on people. I just don’t think it’s fair."

(Dillon) The bill would allow terminally ill patients who are mentally competent the right to request medication to end their lives. It’s modeled after a law in Oregon.

Campbell is a Catholic. And he says when his devout mother was dying two years ago, she made him promise to oppose the bill.  

(Campbell) "She said, ‘John, I’m asking you right now. Please do not, if that issue ever comes before you, I’m asking you to please promise me that you won’t make that vote. … This is for me, and I’m asking you that.’"

(Dillon) Campbell says there are other obstacles in the way of a vote, He says the bill has to work its way through several committees. And meanwhile, he says, the Senate has too many other priorities, such as the budget, health care, and post-Irene issues.

(Campbell) "We have a tremendous number on our plate this year. We’re still trying to face down a $50 million shortfall. I believe it’s incumbent on the Legislature and legislative bodies to prioritize situations."

(Dillon) But supporters of the bill they call Death with Dignity say public opinion is moving in their favor. And they say the Senate does have time to take up the legislation.

(McCormack) "Every year that we wait there are people who suffer needlessly. And the idea that we don’t have time I find sort of offensive."

(Dillon) Windsor Senator Dick McCormack says lawmakers can focus on several issues at once.

(McCormack) "The Vermont Senate is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. That argument was made previously about same-sex marriage, a bill of which Senator Campbell was the chief sponsor, to his credit. The argument then was made, ‘Well, we should deal with the economy, not with this issue.’ Well,

We can deal with both."

(Dillon) The debate on whether to advance the bill has been contentious among Senate Democrats, where a majority of the 23-member caucus supports it. But not Bennington Democrat Dick Sears. The legislation is now in the Judiciary Committee that Sears chairs. And Sears says it’s not moving.

(Sears) "I personally do not support the bill. But that’s not the reason. The fact of the matter is that, to the best of my knowledge, there are not the votes in the Senate to pass such a bill. And without those votes, and my committee has a number of important issues that we’re dealing with, and it just seems to me that it’s kind of pointless to take up a bill we know will get defeated."

(Dillon) But McCormack says supporters are just one or two votes shy in the Senate, and he thinks it’s worth bringing it up for debate.

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


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