By Kirk Carapezza
A bill in the Vermont Senate is known around the Statehouse as S.77, which is the mundane-sounding number assigned to it in the legislative process. And yet the bill is anything but mundane. It would give terminally ill patients with less than six months to live the ability to end their lives, something opponents call “physician-assisted suicide” and supporters call “death with dignity.”
Regardless of what it’s called, the proposal is personal and divisive, as demonstrated in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington told committee members the bill was morally wrong, imploring them to reject it.
“The terminally ill must always know and feel the love, the concern, the compassion and care of a society that protects them and cherishes them when they are the weakest,” said Bishop Salvatore Matano, who cited the Catholic Catechism as well as Shakespeare in his 18-minute testimony during an unusual committee hearing held on the Senate floor.
“’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,’” Matano said, quoting from Hamlet. “’Rough you them how you may, indeed, there is one greater than ourselves and he has said I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.’”
Matano urged lawmakers to avoid making the end-of-life debate in Vermont one between the Catholic Church and everyone else. “This is a human rights issue,” Matano said.
“I truly believe, as do so many, that this bill before us is not the legacy which the good people of Vermont wish to pass on to those who follow us,” he said.
Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, wanted Matano to testify because the bishop didn’t get a chance at a public hearing last week.
“I just felt bad about that so I invited him to speak,” Sears said shortly after Matano’s testimony. “It was not a reflection on any other religious denomination or it wasn’t just because of my opposition to the bill. I just felt that out of respect we should give him the opportunity to speak in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs with the national nonprofit Compassion and Choices, said terminally ill patients should be allowed to decide how they want to die.
“For people who are not Catholic and don’t hold those religious views, they should be empowered to make the choice most consistent with their values and beliefs,” she said.
“Modern medicine now can keep the dying process going on for a very long time,” Tucker said. “And although there are benefits to medical interventions, there is the reality that now dying can become a slow, intolerable, prolonged process and people want to know that if their dying process becomes intolerable they have the choice for aid in dying.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin has predicted that the Legislature will pass a law that addresses end-of-life choices this session, and Vermont has emerged as a battleground state in the assisted death debate after Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a ballot question in November. If passed, the measure would be the first end-of-life law enacted through the legislative process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the bill Friday, and the full Senate is expected to debate the bill as early as next Wednesday. Supporters seem confident the measure will pass on a close vote and move to the House, where it faces less opposition.
Vermont Edition: The End-of-Life Rights Debate
WBUR’s CommonHealth: What Brought Down Assisted Suicide?