MONTPELIER, Vt. – Two Senate committees are due to take testimony this week on what has become a perennial issue around the Vermont Statehouse: legislation that would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.
Variously labeled “death with dignity” by proponents and “physician-assisted suicide” by detractors, the legislation is a carbon copy of a bill that failed in a procedural battle in the Senate last year.
Its reemergence has opponents dusting off familiar criticisms that physicians should not be put in the position of harming patients and that such a measure could be open to abuse. Supporters, meanwhile, contend a growing body of evidence from Oregon and Washington, which have had similar laws since 1997 and 2008, respectively, show the system has worked well.
In Vermont, the issue has been discussed for at least a decade, said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. “All we have is more information from Oregon that confirms what we knew 10 years ago,” she said.
Vermont’s version is modeled on Oregon’s law. Ayer and Michael Sirotkin, a lobbyist representing Patient Choices Vermont, said the Oregon experience has shown the law can operate without abuses.
Statistics from that state show that 115 Oregonians requested and were prescribed a lethal dose of barbiturates in 2012; 77 took them and ended their lives.
The bill would allow patients who have a diagnosis of terminal illness with less than six months to live, confirmed by a second medical opinion, to request the lethal drugs. The request would have to be made three times — twice orally and once in writing during the course of 15 days. The drugs could be prescribed only after an additional two-day waiting period.
“The patient is under no obligation,” after requesting and being given the drugs, Sirotkin said. State rules govern safe disposal when the drugs are not taken, he said.
Disability-rights groups are among the opponents saying terminally ill patients might feel undue pressure from family members or others to end their lives. Edward Mahoney, a religious studies professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester and president of the opponents’ group Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care, said he was bothered by the fact that the patient’s death certificate would list the underlying disease as the cause of death, rather than the lethal drugs.
Mahoney also questioned the lack of a requirement in the legislation for a psychiatric consultation, arguing that usually occurs with people who state an intent to end their own lives.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the Judiciary committee will hear joint testimony Tuesday, with Health and Welfare also hearing testimony Wednesday and Thursday. Ayer says she hopes it will approve legislation by Friday.