Vermont Center for Independent Living launches TV campaign against pending Physician Assisted Suicide Legislation

by Angela Chagnon  

The Vermont Center for Independent Living recently began running a series of television ads to in anticipation of the controversial “Patient End of Life Choices” bill that will be in all likelihood be introduced to the legislature this session.

If Governor Peter Shumlin is true to his word, the organization, which is opposed to the legislation, has reason to be concerned. Shumlin is quoted on the pro-legislation website, Patient Choices as promising, “As Governor, I will strongly champion death with dignity legislation. … 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 three ads feature former Democratic legislator, Lynn Cleavland Vitzhum, who is the mother of a disabled adult son. In each of the ads, she expresses her concern that the bill may harm the elderly or disabled who feel that they are being a burden to their families, and may be pressured into the “death option” to alleviate that burden, even though they may not truly want to end their lives.

The movement and legislation to legalized Physician Assisted Suicide has had many names over the years. Originally founded as the Hemlock Society, it has been called “Death with Dignity” and “End of Life Choices” by proponents. Opponents are referring to it as “Physician Prescribed Death,” which they say is a more accurate description of since the death the patient is achieved as the result of a physician writing a lethal prescription of 90 pills that the patient must take at home, not necessarily and not usually in the presence of their doctor.

This is not the first time Physician Prescribed Death has appeared on the legislative scene in Vermont. The so-called “patient choice and control at end of life” bill has been introduced twice before, once in 2007 (H.44 was defeated in the House by a bipartisan vote of 63-82) and again in February 2010. Neither H.455 nor S.144 made it out of committee.

Proponents of the bill argue that a poll done by Zogby in February 2007 found that 82% of Vermonters would approve of Physician Prescribed Death. But Dr. Robert Orr of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare disagrees. In a statement on the VAEH website (www.vaeh.org), he writes, “How do pollsters ensure they will get the results desired by the organization paying for the poll? By asking an opening question that polarizes the respondents into 2 camps, and by using biased language in that first question to ensure that those caught unaware are led into the desired camp.” The rest of his statement can be found HERE.

Senator Peg Flory (R-Rutland) was a leader in the House fight to defeat H.44 in 2007. She hopes a Physician Prescribed Death bill does not return this year. “It is a hugely divisive issue. It would be a big mistake [to] address that [this legislative session]. I think we need to spend time addressing the economy.”

Senator Flory was not the only one to recognize the controversy and divisivness surrounding this issue. In a 2007 interview on Report from Montpelier, reporter Kristen Carlson interviewed several legislators about the suicide bill, among them Senator John Campbell (D-Windsor County) who is now the Senate President Pro Tem, and then-senator now Governor Peter Shumlin. Today’s two top democrats disagreed strongly at the time over the Physician Prescribed Death.

Campbell said, “It is my personal philosophy…I’m a lawyer and in politics now but I used to be a police officer and one of my jobs was to save folks.”

Shumlin had a different take. “It isn’t people who are in extraordinary pain that makes this choice. It’s people who in the very last weeks of their lives that absolutely lose control over their own bodies, their lives, they no longer have the capability to in anyway live with dignity.”

Now Governor Shumlin has promised to make Physician Prescribed Death a priority for the first year of his new administration. Special interest groups inside, but mostly outside Vermont are taking this promise seriously, and activists in Oregon have already pledged $100,000 to fund a campaign in Vermont to pass the legislation with more to come.

This article is the first in a series designed to educate Vermonters on this very important issue. In the next article we will discuss who is financing the movement to pass Physician Prescribed Death in Vermont.