Life vs. Death Both sides of the Physician Prescribed Death debate

by Angela Chagnon

The debate regarding Physician Prescribed Death is often a heated one. Both times the issue has previously come up in the Vermont legislature, it has proven to be a very divisive and difficult subject with strong opinions on both sides.

Dick Walters, founder of Patient Choices Vermont, believes Physician Prescribed Death legislation will be good for Vermont. “What we’re doing is mirroring the Oregon legislation, which has been in effect for 13 years now,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people who use the law to completion but it positively affects people.”

He says the law will benefit all Vermonters. “It will be for people of any age over 18. A good portion of people who use the law are cancer victims. The average age is somewhere in the 60’s.”

As to whether he feels the law will negatively impact the disabled, he says, “Go to the laboratory of 12 or 13 years experience in Oregon. No disabled person in Oregon has used that law unless they are terminally ill. No disabled person will be using the law unless they are dying. Disabled people who are not terminally ill are not able to use the law.”

An obvious question for Assisted Death advocates is why the law is needed in the first place. If someone really wants to die, that person already has the choice to end their life by any means they choose by committing suicide.

“If you were in pain, if your life were ending, and you had a couple of days left to go, would you take a gun to your head, or would you want your doctor to be legally able to help you prescribe medicine to avoid all that suffering?” Walters asks. “Suicide is a violence. We are not talking about suicide. The people who jumped out of the World Trade Center were not committing suicide. They ended their life in another way. It is not an accurate term to use the word suicide. It is a question of patient choice at end of life.”

Opponents of Assisted Death don’t believe that the law is necessary for people to exercise their so-called ‘right to die’. “People already have the right to not get treatment, to commit suicide,” says Ann Donahue (R – Northfield). “[The Assisted Death law is] a right for doctors, to prescribe a prescription to end the life of a patient. The way that it’s written and designed, is that it would actually fit very few people’s circumstances. It’s not a good thing, so we want to limit it to extreme situations. But they limit it so that it’s really not very fair. If you’re close to death, weak and in bed, you wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it. By the very sake of trying to make it very narrow, very few people would meet the criteria.”

The Vermont Center for Independent Living, an advocate for the disabled, is running ads against legalizing physician assisted suicide. Unlike Walters, they believe the legislation would lead to undue influence on the disabled to take the option of Assisted Death. “[Assisted Death legislation] should not be considered at this time,” says Mark E.W. Kausman of VCIL. “Palliative and supportive care must come before regulation of Assisted Death.”

Rep. Donahue also disagrees with Walters’ assertion that the disabled would not be negatively affected by the law. “If you don’t have healthcare coverage, you’re going to worry about your money disappearing, [you] can’t afford options of treatment,” she says. “Universal Healthcare coverage will make it a more political option to choose the cheaper form of treatment. They [the disabled] are seen as drains on society rather than assets, so they will be affected by this.”

When asked who would benefit from the law, Rep. Donahue answered, “I’m not sure anybody would benefit, except people who misunderstand it as a choice for treatment. in their own mind, they see it as a benefit for society.”

Donahue says the arguments for Physician Assisted Suicide are “based on myths from the past.” She elaborates, “It’s more based on fear, needing that option. It wouldn’t necessarily apply to most situations. People have the choice to die, have the choice for complete pain relief.”

Dick Walters admits that he may never use the law, but “I want the ability, the choice, to make that decision when the time comes.”

Along with the Vermont Center for Independent Living, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare is also fighting the legislation. Their website states, “The purpose of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare is to promote the provision of excellent health care at the end of life in an ethical manner and to oppose efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia in Vermont.” ( According to their newsletter sent out on January 13, their membership includes “representation from Medicine, Surgery, Nursing, Clinical Ethics, Academia, Counseling and Law.”

Walters said that Patient Choices Vermont, consisting of about 6,000 members “of all ages, every political party, every religion, barring none”, is the only Vermont organization advocating for the law. “There are essentially no other VT organizations who are partnering with us.”

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This is the third and final article in a series, although we will continue to cover this issue as events unfold. In case you missed it:

Part 1: Vermont Center for Independent Living launches TV campaign against pending Physician Assisted Suicide legislation.

Part 2: Who is funding the Physician Prescribed Death movement in Vermont?