Has the Physician Assisted Suicide bill been euthanized?

by Angela Chagnon

Governor Peter Shumlin promised during his campaign that Vermont would pass a so-called “Death With Dignity” law in 2011:

“As Governor, I will strongly champion death with dignity legislation. … As Governor, I will make this a top priority and ask the legislature to take this civil rights issue up and pass it prior to adjournment in 2011.”

The bill was introduced in February and assigned to the House Human Services Committee, chaired by Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington). Since then, it’s been silent as, well, a graveyard.

Dick Walters, founder of Patient Choices Vermont, was not available for comment. However, his wife Ginny said that the bill had not yet been considered by the committee but was expected to be introduced in the Senate shortly.

Although legislators are mum about the bill, money from the “Death with Dignity Political Action Fund” located in Oregon has been pouring into the state. The Boston Globe wrote in February of this year, “The Death With Dignity National Center pledged $100,000 to the Vermont group in November, though Walters said just a fraction of that money had been spent.”

A fundraising page on their website, titled “Help Us Bring Death With Dignity to New England”, states:

“Oregon Death with Dignity Political Fund is working together with Patient Choices at End of Life – Vermont to make Death with Dignity legislation a reality in 2011.”

Attempts to pass assisted suicide laws in Maine, Hawaii, and New Hampshire have been unsuccessful and the Montana legislature has put the issue on hold. Another posting on the Oregon-based “Death with Dignity” website, dated November 3, 2010, announced the start of the assisted suicide campaign in Vermont and exposes their plan to use Vermont as a “foothold” to pass the legislation in other states.

“Passing a new law in 2011 will establish a foothold in New England and set the stage for a successful 2012 ballot initiative campaign.

A new law in Vermont will show it is possible to pass Death with Dignity laws through state legislatures for the 26 states without ballot initiatives or referendums.”

Now the Oregon “Death with Dignity” group wants the Governor to make good on his campaign promise, which is understandable since they have put so much effort and money into helping him get elected to ensure passage of an assisted suicide law. ( Whether he will follow through remains to be seen. The Boston Globe article mentioned above points out:

“[I]t is not clear the measure will come to a vote on the House floor this year. [Shap] Smith [D-Morristown], who took over as speaker in 2009, is a lawyer outside the legislative session who lives by the lawyer’s rule of trying never to ask a question to which the answer is not known. He has developed a reputation and record of declining to bring controversial matters to the House floor unless he has the votes to pass them.

“One of the things I have learned is that it’s a good idea to have your ducks in a row,” Smith said. “It gives people confidence you know what you’re doing.”

Rep. Topper McFaun (R-Barre Town), a member of the Human Services Committee, said that the committee hasn’t yet taken up the bill. “It’s still on the wall,” he said. “We haven’t talked about that coming up.”

When asked if the bill had been labeled a priority or if it was going to be considered in the near future, McFaun replied, “The only thing mentioned is that there is a bill.” He continued, “[Ann Pugh] asked people which ones we should spend some time on, I didn’t put it down as a priority.”


7 thoughts on “Has the Physician Assisted Suicide bill been euthanized?

  1. I think people should have full choice to end their life even if you just suffer from major depression. I have no life just work and I am sick of struggling financially. It should be my right to end my life although I want physician assisted suicide legalized in this State. I am tired of being un-loved, and isolated. please make this legal.

  2. A little over 20% of patients in Oregon who chose to take lethal medication cited uncontrollable pain as one of the reasons. The most popular reason, around 90%, was loss of autonomy, which isn’t addressed by palliative care or “comfort care.” And why is it okay to permanently sedate somebody, likely to a degree that effectively destroys that person’s quality of life, but not end that person’s life? Especially when a prescription of phenobarbital is so much cheaper for already overburdened systems like Medicare?

    I think the point that Ishmael was making, was that if a physician suspects any instances of manipulation or if a patient is not judged to be fully competent, then the doctor can’t prescribe the medication and has to report the incidence. Obviously, dead patients can’t report that they were manipulated.

    The safeguards protect vulnerable populations. What is selfish and unacceptable is to refuse the good that this option can do for end-of-life care and for the health care system because of a moral objection, which I think is the only understandable objection.

  3. Ishmael, I think the analogy fits well. Laws are meant to protect the weak from wrongs and abuses. The Assisted Suicide Law fails in that objective in that it does NOT protect the sick and elderly from manipulation. As I mentioned before, there is no possible way for a doctor or anyone else to be 100% certain that someone is not being manipulated. If indeed there have been no objections in Oregon about manipulation, that is certainly understandable since the person who would have been the victim of manipulation, the recipient of the lethal drug, dies. As the old saying goes, ‘Dead men tell no tales.’

    “Comfort care” is currently used in extreme cases where a person who is terminally ill cannot find relief through other means. The patient is sedated until s/he feels no pain, and remains in that state until death comes. Medical advancements in palliative care have made the pro-Assisted Suicide argument weak.

    To pass a law just for the convenience of some, that would act as a “security blanket” for those who want to have the option of ending their lives prematurely without regard for the complications such a law will bring to others, is unacceptable and selfish. This is not what laws are intended for.

  4. Angela, your analogy is flawed. Laws against burglary and vandalism are meant to protect people from others, whereas laws against physician assisted-suicide restrict an individual’s autonomy in deciding what is best for him or herself.

    PSA is for terminal patients with less than 6 months to live, suffering from pain, and diminished quality of life. In many cases palliative care may help to manage pain, but further diminishes autonomy and the quality of life. Is it moral to force somebody to go on in pain, when it is against their wishes? Is it showing respect for human life to make somebody suffer as long as possible until the end comes naturally? PSA gives those patients the means to end their lives in a dignified manner.

    As for manipulation, PSA has been legal for over a decade in Oregon. There has been no objections there about manipulation. If anything, the one objection is that PSA is too hard for certain demographics to get.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. I am so tired of people limiting my freedom to make rational choices at the end of life. Some people simply don’t want to suffer and they should be allowed to decide when they have had enough. Not their doctor and certainly not other people who hold different attitudes about what they consider moral. This is a personal choice issue.

  5. Using your argument, Bill, perhaps we should do away with laws making burglary, vandalism, and other crimes illegal because they’re going to happen anyway?

    Suicide is the act of a person taking their own life. This bill does two things: One, it will make it legal for a physician to assist in the taking of a person’s life, and two, it will make suicide socially acceptable. There are currently no laws in place to prevent someone from taking their own life. The Assisted Suicide bill is unnecessary. It is only meant to soothe the consciences of those who want to kill themselves. Doctors have sworn to save lives, not take them. This bill would make it legal for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication, knowing full well that the person who receives it intends to use it to take their life. Legislation may make it legal, but it does not make it moral.

    During my previous job as Clerk of the Chittenden Probate Court, which handles guardianships as well as estates, etc., I saw firsthand how sick, elderly people can be manipulated by friends or family members. No matter how many “safeguards” are put in place to ensure the person taking the lethal drug is doing it of his or her own accord, the risk of manipulation is always there. It is impossible to know without a doubt that someone is not being manipulated, because it is impossible to read minds.

    Instead of encouraging the sick and elderly to end their lives prematurely, we should show respect and honor for human life by making those who suffer as comfortable as possible until the end comes naturally.

  6. Someone needs to remind the opponents of this legislation that keeping death with dignity practices illegal in no way prevents them from occurring. All it does is punish severely ill and suffering patients and their families by forcing them, out of ethical and family duty, into a shadowy world of acting on their own, which happens all too often. My new novel What You Wish For details exactly this situation in a contemprary California context, and it can have many unwanted consequences. Those interested can easily find the book on Amazon.

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