BRIDPORT — Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer heard an earful on Monday from local opponents of a proposed law that would allow terminally ill, mentally competent patients to take a lethal dose of medication under specific conditions.
Ayer’s committee voted 5-0 last week to advance the so-called “End of Life Choices” bill S.77 through the legislative process. The Addison Democrat told a group of around 40 people at Monday’s debut legislative breakfast in Bridport that the measure is next destined to land in the Senate Judiciary Committee and then come before the full Senate before making its way to the House.
If passed into law, S.77 would set up a process for people with a prognosis of six or fewer months to live, to voluntarily end their own lives. The process would include requirements that the patient make two oral requests (in the presence of his or her physician) and one written (witnessed) request for a lethal dose of medication that the patient cannot take in a public place.
Ayer said her committee recently took a week of impassioned testimony on the bill from expert witnesses and people on both sides of the issue. She and her colleagues also received hundreds of e-mails from Vermonters and out-of-staters weighing in on the issue. Ultimately, Ayer and her colleagues saw enough merit in S.77 to pass it along to the Judiciary Committee.
“This bill is for people who are dying, for whom there is no doubt they are dying,” said Ayer, who alluded to testimony from people who said they did not want to live out their final days in pain and/or clouded by narcotic painkillers. The current legislation is patterned after a law already in place in Oregon. Since being implemented in 1998, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has seen a total of 1,050 terminally ill patients formally request medication to hasten death and, of those, 673 patients took the medication and died. Oregon’s most recent annual report on the act shows that in 2012, 115 prescriptions were written and 66 patients died after ingesting the medication.
But many who turned out at Monday’s breakfast panned the End of Life Choices bill on moral, ethical, religious and scientific grounds.
Shoreham resident Meg Barnes questioned the speed at which S.77 was moving through the Senate this year, a pace she said is not conducive to a full study of the very weighty issue.
“I am disappointed this is being rushed through,” said Barnes, who also lamented Vermont’s current suicide rate, recently ranked 12th in the nation (per capita).
“I don’t understand why we need to pass such a bill with the number of suicides we have in this state.”
Ayer said the Legislature is in no rush to pass S.77. She said the General Assembly has become well-versed on end-of-life legislation, having fielded no less than a half-dozen such initiatives during the past 12 years. While previous bills have failed to become law, Ayer believes public opinion and the political landscape are now lined up for what officials believe is a final try at passing the End of Life Choices bill. Ayer said recent surveys in Vermont have shown widespread support for such a law. One such survey revealed 72 percent support in Addison County, according to Ayer.
But not many of those supporters were in Bridport on Monday.
Waltham resident Pat Brooks voiced her opposition to S.77 and said it should not be referred to as “Death with Dignity,” as some are calling it.
“There is no dignity with death,” she said. “The person has dignity that is inherent with them as a person.”
Prescribing a lethal dose of medication, Brooks maintained, runs counter to the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians.
“(The oath) is a sign of civilized behavior,” Brooks said.
Dave Brooks, also of Waltham, agreed with Barnes’ contention that the bill was being rushed. He suggested that Vermonters be given a chance to vote the measure up or down through a referendum.
“Why can’t the people of Vermont have a right to have a say about this?” he said. “Why not wait until the next election and have it on the ballot?”
Former Addison County Right to Life organization Treasurer Lucien Paquette, 96, added his opposition to S.77. He said he believed patients could be coerced into ordering the legal medication and voiced doubts that someone’s death could be accurately forecast within six months. Paquette said sick patients already have the power to refuse medication and can avail themselves of hospice care.
“Doctor-assisted suicide I don’t think is good for Vermont,” he said.
Tim and Barbara Buskey operate the Vergennes Residential Care Home. Tim Buskey was one of those who testified against the End of Life Choices bill in Montpelier. Buskey said the Vergennes Residential Care Home has served a combined total of 119 residents during his and his wife’s watch, with many of them passing away comfortably in the company of family, friends and hospice workers.
“Society must not cast off these programs already in place,” he said in voicing his opposition to the bill.
William Keyes of Bridport also panned the legislation.
“God put us here, let God take us,” Keyes said. “I don’t think the Legislature should be involved at all.”
But supporters reiterated that S.77 was designed to give terminally ill patients an option.
“I am happy (the bill) has received a full hearing,” said Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln and chairman of the House Committee on Health Care.
Fisher said a physician can currently legally prescribe enough opiate drugs to stop a patient’s breathing, provided it is done with the intent of suppressing pain.
The End of Life Choices bill, Fisher said, would provide a “regulated process” for terminally ill patients to voluntarily ingest lethal medication.
“It is putting the patient in control,” Fisher said.
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast focused on Vermont’s “Home Energy Challenge,” through which the state wants to weatherize 80,000 homes by the year 2020. The aim is to prevent residents’ heating dollars from escaping through the cracks in their homes. The trouble is, the state is short on funds to implement the program. A state task force has floated an 11-cent-per-gallon tax on home heating fuel as one idea for funding the $276 million weatherization effort.
Local lawmakers were skeptical of such a tax gaining a lot of support.
“The big picture is very problematic,” Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said of the state’s varied needs and shrinking revenues. Sharpe serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which works on tax policy.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]