By Kevin Joseph Ryan
Thursday, April 12th, the Vermont State Senate spent a full two hours in debate, over an amendment introduced by Senator Hinda Miller (D- Chittenden) only two days before. On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, of which Ms. Miller is a member, voted to amend H. 157, a bill prohibiting minors from using tanning beds, to include provisions allowing physician assisted suicide.
The Physician Assisted Suicide Bill, known as S.103, termed a bill “for patient choice at the end of life” by it’s sponsors, had been stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee and was considered a dead bill. Various forms of this proposal have been considered by the Legislature for 10 years, without success.
What S.103, the Assisted Suicide Bill would do, is permit a terminally ill patient to obtain a prescription for a series of medications which would quickly bring about their deaths. This would happen after a complex process was followed involving doctors, therapists and other witnesses to the decision. Many fear that family members or others involved in hospice or other end of life care for the terminally ill would unduly influence the patient to end their own lives if that decision were that to be sanctioned by physicians or the state.
Others have expressed different objections to assisted suicide, ranging from the religious objection that suicide is an affront to God, to the concern that physicians prescribing pain-killing drugs without following the complex process of assisted suicide may open themselves up to a homicide prosecution should the course of treatment result in the patient’s death. The latter may cause undue suffering as doctors may hesitate to offer such medications.
Proponents of assisted suicide refer to such a process as “death with dignity”, and say it allows the patient to decide when they have had enough of being terminally ill. Suicide, while a deeply serious, sensitive and highly personal issue, remains a legal act under Vermont law.
In either case, Vermont Senate Rules allow for amendments made to bills only when those amendments are germane, or relate to, the original purpose and subject matter of the bill. Senator Miller believed that assisted suicide and tanning beds are related because while tanning beds have been linked to cancer, patients who would seek assisted suicide may have cancer. Lt. Governor Phil Scott, acting as President of the Senate, ruled that the amendment was not germane. Senator Harold Girard (D- Addison) then requested the rules be set aside, and the bill voted on as presented, opening up a frequently contentious debate.
Senator Hinda Miller began by offering an explanation for her unusual actions. “I do not want to offend my colleagues”, Miller said, “…but there are things higher than protocol.” Miller added, “I’m a (baby) boomer…this offers choices, and boomers like choices.” Miller noted that she understood that one person died each year of melanoma in Vermont, which tied her amendment to the tanning bill. While the connection between minor’s tanning and end of life care is tenuous at best, 30 Vermonters each year die of melanoma, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
From there, the debate regarding whether to include the Miller Amendment split largely along party lines, indicating where support lay for the assisted suicide procedure. Senator Mark MacDonald (D- Orange) noted, “We can’t blame the rules (for this), we make the rules!” Senator Alice Nitka (D-Windsor)tried to explain, “There is a huge difference between death with dignity and suicide…in death with dignity, the patients want to live…” She went on to explain that the patients could simply no longer live with their illness.
Senator Phil Baruth (D – Chittenden) made the claim that the “majority of Vermonters have wanted this (assisted suicide) for a long time…” He then went on to point out that Former Vermont Congressman Richard Mallory had been a supporter of assisted suicide. Mallory took his life last fall after suffering cancer which had spread to his spine.
Senate Republicans had a decidedly different view of the assisted suicide provisions, with the exception of Barbara Snelling (R- Chittenden), who described herself as a “strong advocate of the bill.” Senator Peg Flory (R- Rutland) said, “This bill has not hung on the wall, without notice, for 10 years…we have taken it up…it has not passed.” Flory then noted, “(This) diminishes the value we place on all our loved ones’ lives.” Senator Randy Brock (R- Franklin) tried to clear what the vote on the amendment was really about. He described the amended bill by saying, “We don’t know what’s in it, we have not analyzed it, we haven’t read it, that does not make for good law.”
Leading the opposition to the Miller assisted suicide amendment was Senator Dick Sears (D – Bennington). “(This bill) would place doctors in the position of determining what is in the best interests of the patients in terms of suicide.” Sears spelled out his concern. “Suicide becomes a part of our normalized social conduct.”, he said. Sears described the “Double Effect” ethical rule of medicine, whereby doctors can now prescribe medication to alleviate pain, even if that medication may also lead to death. He said physicians could be subject to criminal charges following the death of a patient under this legislation, while following ethical guidelines. Most importantly, Sears noted, no review of this bill was undertaken by Miller’s committee before recommending the amended bill. “When the process breaks down, we as a Senate lose and the people of Vermont lose.”
The final vote of the Senate to accept the bill with the assisted suicide provisions was 11 supporting, 18 rejecting the measure. The Senate will take up the tanning provisions next Wednesday. What this goes to show, is that even when it appears a public policy change will not happen, the public must remain vigilant. Legislative bills, unlike terminally ill loved ones, sometimes get a second chance at life.