The Vermont Senate has taken the first step toward passing a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with the help of a doctor’s prescription.
In a passionate debate that stretched over six hours, senators weighed whether the bill sanctioned suicide or simply gave patients another choice on how to end their suffering.
If the measure becomes law, Vermont would be the first state to pass an end of life bill through the legislative process. Similar laws in Washington and Oregon were approved through voter referendums.
Members of the Senate were keenly aware of the historic step Vermont could take.
Rutland Senator Peg Flory – a staunch opponent – said the bill could send a bad message to people considering killing themselves. And she said the measure would wrongly allow state-sanctioned suicide.
Flory recalled her mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness – yet lived 10 more years to enjoy her grandchildren.
"I’ve gone through a lot of the deaths," Flory said. "They’re never easy. But for our state to say a physician can prescribe medication whose sole purpose is to kill oneself – the sole purpose to kill oneself – it’s not any different than selling them bullets and a gun.
But backers of the bill emphasized repeatedly that the choice is voluntary. Only patients determined to have six months or less to live could get the prescription, and only after being evaluated by two separate physicians. They would have to be mentally competent, and they would have to take the medication themselves.
Still, the Vermont Medical Society – representing the state’s physicians – is opposed to the bill. And Windsor Senator Dick McCormack addressed head-on its opposition. What really matters, McCormack said, is the patient’s suffering and his or her individual choice to die comfortably.
"Have I suffered enough? Do I choose to no longer allow myself to suffer any further? I don’t choose to have the Vermont Medical Society in my death chamber making that decision for me," he said. "I want my beautiful and intelligent wife. I want my fine sons. I want my granddaughters. I don’t want the Vermont Medical Society there. I don’t want the state of Vermont there."
The debate was both personal and passionate. Bennington Senator Dick Sears – who chairs the Judiciary Committee – said lawmakers and the medical profession should focus more on palliative care to make patients more comfortable at the end of their lives.
But Sears also took aim at the proponents’ name for the bill: "death with dignity." He said the phrase evoked George Orwell’s twisted language of a totalitarian state.
"And Orwell talked about the party, and the party slogan. And the slogan of the party was written everywhere, even on the cigarette package, is ‘war is peace,’ ‘freedom is slavery,’ and ‘ignorance is strength,’" Sears said. "And can we add to that: Suicide is death with dignity?"
But Addison Senator Claire Ayer – the chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee – stressed that the bill didn’t force anybody to do anything. And she pointed out the bill is not named "death with dignity" but is instead called "patient choice and control at end of life.’
"This bill allows for one more option for dying patients. It allows them to participate in their deaths on their own terms and in a way that leaves them in a way they want to be remembered," Ayer said.
The actual vote came on an unusual procedural move. The Senate advanced the bill by defeating 17-13 a Judiciary Committee effort to kill it.