WEYBRIDGE — Leaders in the Vermont House of Representatives are targeting a May 11 adjournment for the 2013 legislative session, leaving them around three weeks to tackle an ambitious agenda that includes a familiar and emotionally charged issue: whether to give terminally ill Vermonters the authority to take their own lives under a bill called “End of Life Choices.”
The Vermont Senate has already debated the matter through bill S.77, which in its original form would have set up a process allowing people with a prognosis of six or fewer months to live to voluntarily end their own lives. The process, patterned after an Oregon law, would have included 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 could take in private.
But in a narrow vote, the Senate voted out a dramatically amended version of S.77 that provides immunity to physicians who prescribe lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients who choose to overdose on that medicine.
The bill has now moved to the House, where it will first face review by the Judiciary and Human Services committees. Hearings were set to begin on Tuesday, April 16, at the Statehouse. Opponents and proponents of the bill will be closely watching whether the bill is substantially changed in content and brought forward for a House vote this session.
“Part of the discussion is, if the House is going to address this, is it going to address this through the lens that the Senate provided, or through the lens of the original bill?” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and the House majority leader. “All of the (legislative) leaders have been clear this is not what we call a ‘caucus position,’ this is a vote of conscience, and people on either side of the aisle fall into different places. This is a very personal issue and people have strongly held beliefs.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, is chairman of the House Health Care Committee. He was a member of the Human Services Committee when he said the House made its last serious attempt to pass a “death with dignity” bill around six years ago.
“I really do see the bill as a core health care principle of putting people in charge of their own health care, with the advice of their doctors,” Fisher said during Monday’s legislative breakfast in Weybridge. “I think that’s a very important principle.”
Fisher argued that terminally ill patients are currently taking their own lives under more covert circumstances.
“Today, patients and doctors are communicating around the facts, not being able to communicate directly about their wishes, saying, ‘I want more methadone and opiates to be able to treat my pain, I don’t care about the outcome,’” Fisher said. “Doctors are allowed to prescribe enough methadone with the knowledge that it can suppress breathing enough to end the person’s life, as long as the intent is for pain management. We are trying to bring that process into a more conscious, outward process where someone says, ‘Here’s what I choose to do, I’m willing to go through all the hoops.’”
Ferrisburgh resident Donna Scott urged lawmakers at the legislative breakfast to defeat the bill, a measure she believes could lead to patients being coerced into committing suicide. She also voiced concern the measure could lead to insurance companies dropping coverage of some medical procedures in Vermont and instead offering to underwrite the costs of assisted suicide.
“People are going to be told their health care will not be covered,” Scott said. “Why do you think that no other states besides Washington and Oregon have accepted this bill? It has just been voted down again in Massachusetts.”
She likened the bill to euthanasia, and warned that assisted suicide could become more broadened and accepted, citing Holland as such an example.
“We’re all terminal,” Scott said. “So we are all going to be in that position where we may have someone else trying to force us to make these choices, and they will be hard choices because there won’t be anyone to pay for the health care. The only choice will be physician-assisted suicide.”
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, served notice he will not support S.77.
“I agree with the position of the Vermont Medical Society, and their position is that no bill is required,” Van Wyck said. “There is a fine balance between how much you give to a person to relieve the pain and not cause respirator failure, and that is something doctors are completely aware of.”
Jewett took issue with Scott’s assessment of physician-assisted suicide in Holland. Jewett said he has relatives who live in that nation. He spoke of one relative who recently died and said she was able to do so under a Dutch health care system that “gave her wishes primacy, rather than a doctor’s.”
“(Holland) is a wonderful place,” he said. “It’s not a place where people are killed. I hope everyone understands that.”
Addison resident Mark Boivin called S.77 an example of state government unnecessarily trying to micromanage people’s lives.
“The more we micromanage people’s lives, the more liberties we take from them,” Boivin said.
“If anyone wants to take their own life, they can do it, and there is 100,000 different ways of doing it,” he added. “We don’t need to enable someone else to be a participant in it. That’s what is happening in this bill.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.