Oregon-style lethal dosage is not the Vermont way

by Sharon Iszak

Shortly after Hurricane Irene ravaged Vermont in 2011, CBS News reporter Wyatt Andrews described how ordinary Vermonters refused to leave other Vermonters in crisis. In small, flood-wracked towns, no-one was cut off, stranded, left to die. The headline of his story ran, “’The Vermont Way’ applied in Irene Recovery.”

That term, ‘the Vermont Way,’ gets a lot of use, not all of it deserved. But if it means anything, it means that we Vermonters size up big problems and come up with our own, practical solutions that leave no-one behind, especially those unable to protect themselves. As much as possible, we try to do right by everyone, especially the needy. This is the common thread between the “Native Vermonter” and the “Moved Here From Elsewhere” Vermont Way, and a good thing, too.

Which brings me to the “death with dignity” or “assisted suicide” bill. I call it lethal dosage. Our Senate carefully considered and then rejected the one-size-fits all bill from Oregon, and instead passed a bill that would give doctors, patients and their loved ones more freedom to aggressively treat end of life pain. If the House agrees we need a law about lethal dosage, the Senate bill will do just fine. The Oregon bill would expose needy Vermonters to great risk. Its supporters are in kneejerk denial about this, but the threats are plain for anyone willing to see. I will list just three:

State officials see lethal dosage as cost-control for the state’s new health care system. In a lengthy interview in the July, 2011 Addison Independent about the many ways to control the cost of the state’s new health care system, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s former Insurance Commissioner, Steve Kimball, said that ‘Passing a law that allows physicians to help end a patient’s life under very controlled circumstances, known as “death with dignity,” is one such measure that could help.’

That’s pretty straightforward. No interpretation needed. The state’s leading insurance official at the time gave lethal dosage the thumbs-up as a cost-control measure.

Lethal dosage sends the wrong message to suicide-prone teenagers. It is a fact that Vermont has a high teen suicide rate; it is also a fact that Oregon has the sixth-highest rate in the nation. It is also true that a family history of suicide is a leading indicator in why teens attempt suicide. During the Senate hearings held earlier this year, a Barre man testified that his own son, a high suicide risk, complained bitterly that the proposed legislation set a hypocritical double standard that suicide is “okay for adults, but not okay for kids.” The youth was not receptive to explanations that this bill was meant for adults, not children. Legislators considering gun bans because guns are linked to teen suicide might well ponder an unintended message of “do what I say, not what I do.” They also might want to consider that access to a terminally ill person’s lethal dose is not, in real life, always limited to the prescribee, but to others considering ending their lives, such as their troubled children or grandchildren.

Lethal dosage could be a means of death encouraged by, or at the hands of, others. Does this seem far-fetched? Not to Pete Gummere, a St. Johnsbury medical ethicist who has counseled many families on end-of-life issues. He testified before the Senate that he has heard family members say of terminally ill “loved ones”, “I want him dead, do you hear me? I want him dead!” Such family toxicity is, sadly, very real. It is not a stretch to say that introducing lethal dosage into such a “real world” situation could have awful consequences.

Angry family members, scared teens, and cost-control: this is not an environment into which we should drop lethal dosage. No-one should be “left behind” permanently. It’s not the Vermont Way.

Sharon Iszak is from Fairfax, VT