Vermont Legislature Passes Assisted Suicide

Nora Sullivan, M.P.A  

On Monday night, state lawmakers in Vermont approved an assisted suicide bill which will make Vermont the fourth state in the union to legalize assisted suicide.  Governor Peter Shumlin (D) has said that he plans on signing the bill within a week.  Governor Shumlin has stated that legalizing assisted suicide “gives Vermonters who are suffering from a terminal illness and anticipating excruciating pain peace of mind in knowing that this is an option.”


Once the bill is enacted, Vermont will become the first state to decriminalize assisted suicide through the legislative process.  Physician assisted suicide is currently legal in Oregon and Washington, where the law was passed by ballot initiative, as well as Montana where it was legalized by court order.  A similar bill in Massachusetts was rejected by voters last year.


Vermont’s House on Representatives voted 75-65 to approve the bill on Monday, after the State Senate came out in favor of the 17-3 last week.  The bill states that a qualifying patient must be at least 18, a Vermont resident and suffering from an incurable and irreversible disease, with less than six months to live. Two physicians, including the prescribing doctor, must make that medical determination.


The bill has caused a great deal of controversy  in Vermont with pro-assisted suicide groups lobbying veraciously to push assisted suicide through despite the adamant opposition of pro-life, religious, medical, and disabled rights groups.


Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life, a pro-assisted suicide group which fought for the bill, called the vote “an important step for champions of terminally ill patient autonomy rights.”


Advocates for assisted suicide argue that giving terminally ill patients the option of ending their lives is the most compassionate option and argue for its safety and ethicality. However, as pointed out by Dr. Jacqueline Harvey, physician assisted suicide can lead to serious and unforeseen harm.  There is real concern that the legalization of physician assisted suicide can lead to the denial of palliative care coverage and adverse impact on the disabled.  Dr. Harvey also points out that there is a real worry about terminally ill patients being coerced into choosing suicide for financial reasons or convenience sake.


The American Medical Association has also remained firm in its opposition to physician-assisted suicide.  Regarding the issue, the AMA states, “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”


Dr. Edward Mahoney, President of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, stated, “Democrats and Republicans, medical professionals and disability rights advocates have consistently come together to oppose this ill-conceived and misguided public policy.”  Adding, “This latest bill version is an unrestricted physician assisted suicide hodgepodge and represents the worst of both worlds; a huge and negative shift in public policy and the way Vermont approaches people with serious illness or disability. It is Oregon-style assisted suicide 2.0.”


It is to be hoped that physicians in Vermont will remain committed to the well being of their patients and not their destruction.  The American people must discourage attempts to legalize this ethically problematic policy and instead call for ever-improving care for the terminally ill and recognition of the dignity of every human person until natural death.


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