Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare Testifies against S.103


Editor’s note: It appears that S.103, the Physician Assisted Suicide bill, died in the Senate Judiciary Committee today

This morning, members of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, a grassroots organization representing physicians, nurses and other professionals from around the state, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and voiced their opposition to S.103 “An Act Related to Patient Choice at End of Life.” VAEH believes that this bill is more aptly called “An Act to Legalize Physician Assisted Suicide.”

The organization is concerned that a Physician Assisted Suicide law could cause serious, irreversible harm.

Supporters of S.103 say it is all about patient freedom and choice. They assure us that only people who are certainly facing imminent, and irreversible death, whofully understand all necessary information and options about their condition, and are choosing death completely pressure-free, may choose physician assisted. They discount the possibilityof tragic mistakes or abuse.

VAEH does not question the compassionate motive of making every possible tool available during the end stages of life. But the organization is concerned that any benefits of Physician Assisted Suicide might come at the expense of other Vermonters who, facing real-world uncertainties, mistakes and pressure, might suffer harm, including unwanted death.

VAEH believes that if S.103 does become law, the possible consequences won’t be remedied by a quick fix in a year or two. They will be final, because death is final. Here are some of the possible consequences:

  • Physician Assisted Suicide may prompt some patients to consider unwanted death to avoid burdening their families. Even the possibility of this option may create a painful choice that should not be forced on highly vulnerable terminally ill Vermonters. Far better to assure them of dignified, compassionate quality end of life care that addresses all of their needs.
  • Legalizing Physician Assisted Suicide can lead to unnecessary death for non-terminally ill patients. Doctors are not perfect. Despite their rigorous training, commitment and ethical standards, like the rest of us they are human. They can make mistakes. For example, Jack Caulfield of Westminster was told he had “only weeks to live.” Jack’s wife Lynn, a registered nurse, said Jack might have chosen a swift death had Physician Assisted Suicide been legal. Instead, he received whole-person end-of-life care and lived far beyond the predicted time, experiencing unforgettable times of family closeness and celebration.
  • Cost containment pressures may lead to abuses. The health insurance crisis may limit some health care providers and patients to the “cheap” option. All health insurers, including Vermont’s, share the common dilemma of too little money and too many medical bills. In this environment, “expensive” end-of-life patients are particularly vulnerable. This has already happened in Oregon, one of the few jurisdictions where Physician Assisted Suicide is legal, as seen on ABC News (June 2008, Barbara Wagner was refused coverage for a second lung cancer treatment after remission. Her doctor wanted to prescribe an approved drug that would extend her life and make her more comfortable. An Oregon Health Plan letter informed her they would not pay for the new prescription but would pay for assisted suicide. After Wagner’s story went public, 53-year-old prostate cancer patient Randy Stroup reported the same thing had happened to him. These near-tragedies occurred after former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts told the Vermont House in 2007 her state protects terminally ill people from all forms of abuse.

State and federal government, heath care providers, and all insurers are being pressed hard on cost control. End of life care is expensive. Shouldn’t we be concerned that some terminally ill Vermonters may be forced into unwanted choices?

  • Pressure from some family members. Like doctors, family members are people. People make mistakes. PAS may prompt family pressure, however subtle and perhaps even unconscious. Motives may include fatigue, poor relationships, financial concerns, inheritance issues, and/or lack of desire to provide end-of-life support.
  • If legalized, Physician Assisted Suicide makes the medical community as well as the larger public complicit in sanctioning suicide. Proponents of S.103 are seeking the permission and endorsement of our duly elected officials and asking us to authorize suicide. This puts assisted suicide squarely in the practice of medicine – and VAEH believes this is exactly what doctors should not be doing.

Death is final. Laws that may give “control” to some people must not strip it from others. Instead, we must work together to continue advances in end-of-life care. Terminally ill Vermonters need and want dignified, compassionate care. But for their sake, lethal drugs are not the answer.