Changing the Hippocratic oath to accommodate physician assisted death

by Angela Chagnon

Following last Thursday’s press conference announcing Doctor Assisted Death legislation (H.274), Dr. David Babbott, retired professor of Medicine at UVM, was asked if the law would the physician’s creed to save lives.

He answered, “Over the centuries this Hippocratic oath has evolved, and as an example the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine’s doctor’s oath, that our new doctors take, has nothing to say about the necessity to prolong suffering,” he replied.

The original Hippocratic Oath contains the phrase, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan”. A complete translation of the original Hippocratic oath can be found here.

During the press conference, Dick Walters, President of Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont (formerly “Death With Dignity Vermont” and “End of Life Choices in Vermont”) argued,

“I believe fervently that at the end of life, I should be able to make my own choice, whatever that choice might be, without the government, doctors, or church telling me what to do,” Walters said.

“We have strong support from Governor Shumlin, legislative support is growing strong and daily,” continued Walters.”We have every confidence the votes will be there for passage.”

“In the Oregon experience, only a few actually end up using the advantage of the legislation,” said former legislator Malcolm Severance, who is currently on the faculty of UVM.”But there are doubtless an untold number of others who really are happy with the fact that it’s available if they choose to use it.”

Walters read a prepared statement from from former Vermont governor Madeline Kunin.

“The Patient Choices Bill provides Vermonters at the end of life the right to decide, in carefully defined circumstances, the timing and dignity of their final days,” he read.”Oregon has shown the validity and effectiveness of including this path among the many ways to optimize caring and humanity.Vermont can be a leader once again in a matter of conscience and social justice.”

Other speakers included former Congressman Dick Mallory and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne.

Dr. Babbott reacted strongly when he was asked if the law could be abused to coerce a person into taking his or her life prematurely.

“You mean to say that the avaricious granddaughter wants to get her grandmother’s money two weeks early?” demanded Babbitt, glaring at the reporter who offered the question.”We’re not dealing with a long period of time, we’re dealing with patients whose days are very limited and we’re not really significantly shortening the patient’s life in a vast majority of instances. What we are doing is increasing the quality of life.”

(An ironic line. Reminds me of Ted Knight’s line in Caddy Shack — “Didn’t want to do it [send young men to the gas chamber]. Felt I… owed it to them.”)

Babbott said that “the political arm of the Roman Catholic Church” and “some of the disability groups” were opposed to the bill, but that a “majority of folks with disabilities as individuals want to have this choice.”

Ed Paquin is a former legislator from Westford who now works with the Vermont Coalition of Disability Rights.Paquin, who is himself disabled, disagrees with Babbott’s assertion.

“Look at the way the words ‘death with dignity’ are used in the bill,” said Paquin.”It suggests that life with a disability is not a dignified life.”

“Suicide is not a civil right,” he continued.He said the law wasn’t about whether it was legal to commit suicide, but to legalize a doctor’s assistance in taking a life.He said that legislators need to see that the implications of the law go beyond public policy.

The Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL) has been running television ads against assisted suicide.The ads feature Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, a former Democratic legislator whose son has cerebral palsy and autism.

“People with disabilities are seen differently,” Vitzthum says in the ad.”They’re treated differently.They’re seen as ‘less than’, they’re seen as a potential burden on their families, a potential burden on society…those are the people who are most at risk of being convinced to let themselves die so they can lower the burden on someone else.”

Joining with the VCIL and the VT Coalition of Disability Rights in opposition to the bill are the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, the American Medical Association, and the Vermont Medical Society.