Should terminally ill Vermonters be allowed to end their lives?
Montpelier, Vermont - February 17, 2011
Speaker after speaker told stories about end of life struggles.
"The hardest thing I have ever done was to care for my father as he suffered as he died," said Aaron Loomis of Patient Choices Vermont. "Every one of those final days my father would look at us, my sister, my brother, please help me end the suffering, but we could not grant his final wishes. Indeed my father had no choice."
Backers of a bill introduced at the Statehouse believe it's time Vermont gave terminally ill patients the choice to end their lives with the help of a doctor.
"The bill offers personal choice. No one, no one is required to exercise the choice," said Dick Walters of Patient Choices Vermont.
"And that choice given to patients who have a prognosis of life expectancy of six months or less. In addition the patient must be mentally competent; able to make up his own mind and communicate his or her own wishes," said Dr. David Babbitt of Patient Choices Vermont.
But members of a group calling itself Patient Choices Vermont will face strong opposition from some churches, right-to-life groups and those in the disability community.
Even what to call the bill stirs emotions. Those who want the choice called it "Death with Dignity." The disabled take issue with that label.
"To those who live with a disability to some extent, the implication is to live with a disability is not a life of dignity and we do not agree with that," said Ed Paquin of Disability Rights of Vermont.
The bill is modeled after an Oregon law. Supporters point to that state's success, citing little or no abuse and the few people who actually take their own lives with the help of a doctor. Critics contend:
"Is that logic enough to change the role of a physician from healing and easing pain to one of hastening death?" Paquin asked.
This is not the first time Vermont has gone down this path. Three years ago a similar bill was defeated in the House. Both sides are gearing up for an emotional debate again. This time it has the backing of the state's new governor.
"I don't think it hurts our state to have the conversation about kind of treatment do you want if you are terminally ill, your doctor knows you are going to die, you are in a lot of pain," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont. "How do you want to spend your last four or five days?"
"Here you are bringing a medical professional into the question of suicide. I guess I don't see what choice the individual doesn't have now other than the choice of getting the assistance of a professional in the suicide," Paquin said.
The governor hopes this remains a Vermont debate and outside forces do not try to influence the legislation at the Statehouse. Regardless, he wants a bill to sign this session. The governor would not predict the outcome of the bill but said he believed the House was close to having enough votes to pass the bill.