The Vermont Senate opened debate on a bill Tuesday that would give terminally ill patients the right to request prescription drugs from their physicians to end their lives. The chamber is filled with supporters and opponents who are sitting in the balcony and packed into the corners of the Statehouse.
If this bill is ultimately enacted into law, Vermont would become the first state to pass a statute through a traditional legislative process. Other states have adopted the bill through a voter referendum. In Vermont, the measure won a unanimous recommendation of the Health and Welfare Committee, but then the Judiciary Committee on Friday recommended the bill be rejected.
Read the bill here.
You can hear the debate live on VPR’s stream from the Statehouse here.
Vermont has emerged as a key battleground in the national debate over the issue. On Tuesday morning, shortly before the debate, Sergeant at Arms Francis Brooks said his office was overwhelmed with calls from across the country both in favor and against the measure. “The phone was ringing faster than we could pick it up,” Brooks said.
9:50 a.m.: Senate President John Campbell moves to suspend Senate rules to take up end-of-life bill, S. 77.
10:10 a.m.: In support of end-of-life choices, Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the sponsor of the bill, read a slew of stats from a study in Oregon where voters have legalized the process. “Over 15 years, there’s no correlation between the law and suicide statistics,” Ayer said.
Ayer also listed the bill’s many safeguards, including 15 specific duties for physicians who would prescribe the lethal drugs.
10:37 a.m.: It was standing room only in the Senate, so opponents and proponents of the bill sat on the floor outside the chamber. Detractors said the end-of-life choices bill is flawed and they want more safeguards. “I don’t think it’s well conceived,” argued Bob Orleck, a physician from Randolph. “There are too many risks.”
10:43 am.: Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, explained the Judiciary Committee’s vote that moved the bill before the Senate with a negative recommendation. (More details here from VPR’s John Dillon.) Sears raised questions about whether death certificates should list natural causes or physician-assisted death. “We don’t understand what the Health and Welfare Committee had in mind,” Sears said.
11:11 a.m.: Sen. Sears reads an editorial written by Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, in opposition to the bill. “I think the message is clear,” Sears said. “We don’t know.”
11:17 a.m.: “‘The immense lobbying on this bill bothers me,” Sears said, referring to the group Patient Choices Vermont, which supports the measure and has bought newspaper, TV and radio ads leading up to the debate.
11:57 a.m.: Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, requests that the Legislature defines objective and subjective good faith and how it relates to physicians prescribing lethal drugs.
12:22 p.m.: In emotional statements against the bill, Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, explained why she refuses to call the measure ‘death with dignity.’ Flory said her father died a dignified death without taking drugs intended to kill him. Flory and other opponents want to know whether the Health and Welfare Committee is convinced all necessary safeguards are in place to avoid unintended consequences.
12:30 p.m.: Senate stands in recess. End-of-life choices debate to resume at 1 p.m.
1:07 p.m.: The Senate has resumed debate.
1:26 p.m.: Sen. Peg Flory asked whether primary care physicians who prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients should be obligated to characterize cause of death as suicide on death certificate. Sen. Ayer said the bill does not address death certificates and that the practice is voluntary, reminding senators that the bill is introduced as “patient choice of care at the end of life” rather than “death with dignity.”
1:37 p.m.: After interrogating the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Flory said to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients is “no different than selling them bullets and a gun.”
1:54 p.m.: Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, interrogates Sen. Ayer, saying she’s worried about foul play and the abuse of seniors. “Did the committee talk about this?,” Cummings asked. “Statistics are only as good as the data we put in.”
2:05 p.m.: Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, choked up as he talked about his mother’s death from breast cancer five years ago. “As long as she had mental capacity she had the capacity to know her family, her friends and the people around her,” Westman said in expressing his opposition to the end-of-life choices bill.
2:13 p.m.: Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, asked Sen. Ayer how much medication terminally ill patients would need to inject and raised concerns about failed attempts to end their lives.
2:28 p.m.:Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said lawmakers have no right to sponsor end-of-life choices. “Our society is about preserving life,” Galbraith said.
2:52 p.m.: Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, delivered perhaps the most passionate declaration in support of the end-of-life choices bill. “Under present law, the person does not get to make their own decision,” McCormack said, urging his colleagues to allow the bill to move forward in the Legislature. “I don’t want other people’s bishops making that decision for me,” he said. “I want to make my own decisions.”
3:17 p.m.: Senate President John Campbell urged senators to accept recommendation of the Judiciary Committee and strike down end-of-life bill. “If this is just another tool in the toolbox, I’d rather see this body spend it’s time and money to increase palliative care and hospice,” Campbell said. “I think people should have choices but it should be with their physician and their family – not the 30 of us.”
3:45 p.m.: The Senate has voted 17-to-13 to reject the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation to strike down the end-of-life choices bill. The bill will move forward for final debates on Wednesday and Thursday.
Listen to the debate live on VPR’s Statehouse stream here.