By Kirk Carapezza
The Vermont Senate has taken a first step toward approving a bill that would give terminally ill patients with less than six months to live the right to request lethal medication to end their lives. Senators voted 17-to-13 on Tuesday against the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that the bill be rejected.
The Statehouse was packed with supporters and opponents – in corners of the chamber, up in the balcony and on the floor of the lobby listening to testimony piped through speakers. It’s clear that Vermont has emerged as a central battleground in the national debate over the end-of-life choices.
On the floor of the Senate, lawmakers disputed the merits of the bill, which proponents call “death with dignity” and detractors rebuke as “physician-assisted suicide.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the sponsor of the bill, defended its health benefits, saying it contains numerous safeguards to guard against abuse or foul play. She read a number of statistics and figures from a study recently conducted in Oregon where voters legalized the process more than a decade ago.
“Over 15 years, there’s no correlation between the law and suicide statistics,” Ayer said, listing what she said are the bill’s many safety provisions, including specific duties for physicians who, if the bill were enacted, would be allowed to prescribe lethal amounts of medicine for terminally ill patients.
Following nearly seven hours of interrogation, a tired Ayer said it was those figures and those safeguards that put the measure over the top.
“I had an answer for 85 percent of the questions because of the data. It shows us that the things that we worry about didn’t happen [in Oregon],” Ayer said.
But detractors insisted the end-of-life choices bill is flawed and they called for more safeguards.
“I don’t think it’s well conceived,” argued Bob Orleck, a physician who arrived from Randolph to hear the debate. “There are too many risks.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, explained his committee’s recommendation against the bill. Sears raised questions about whether death certificates should list natural causes or physician-assisted death.
The debate occasionally turned emotional. Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said she refuses to call the measure “death with dignity.” She said her father died what she called a dignified death without taking “drugs intended to kill him.” Flory and other opponents wanted to know whether the Health and Welfare Committee is convinced all necessary safeguards are in place to avoid unintended consequences.
“We all fear being incapacitated,” Flory said. “We like to feel that we’re in control of our lives and, therefore, in control of our deaths. We aren’t. We never will be.”
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,” said Westman, who voted against the bill.
Senate President John Campbell urged senators to accept the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee and reject the bill. “If this is just another tool in the toolbox, I’d rather see this body spend its 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.”
But, in the end, supporters had the votes to advance the measure. Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, passionately endorsed the 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.”
Some lawmakers still want to make amendments to the bill, which will come up for a preliminary vote on Wednesday and final debate on Thursday.