Vermont’s proposed assisted suicide bill “is very flawed and does not protect patients”

Editor’s note. The following summary of what took place Wednesday in the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee was provided by “True Dignity Vermont: Vermont Citizens against Assisted Suicide.”

Paul Harrington, Executive Vice President, Vermont Medical Association

Paul Harrington, Executive Vice President, Vermont Medical Association

The first two witnesses were legislative counsels, the lawyers who work on drafting the bills. They simply went through the bill, section by section.

The next witness was Nancy Warner, executive director of the Orleans/Essex Visiting Nurses Association, who spoke from her 33 years of experience in hospice care.  She said Oregon’s whole culture is so different from Vermont’s that it would be impossible to impose Oregon’s way of doing things on our state.  She questioned whether this or any legislation should interfere with medical ethics.  She said unequivocally that pain can be managed.  With regard to prognosis, she said she has known many patients who qualified for hospice, which requires the same 6 months prognosis proposed for assisted suicide, who have lived much longer; one is still alive ten years after his terminal diagnosis.  She also fears the pressure on her hospice patients.  She has a 16-year-old patient with bone cancer, who is frightened that he would be a candidate for this.  He wants to live until he is 18, and beyond.  She spoke on hospice care to a group of high school students recently.  She said she was astounded at the hostility to hospice they expressed and discovered that they associate hospice care with assisted suicide, which they called “abolishing their lives.”  She said our senators need to stop, take a breath, and consider what they are proposing to do.

Paul Harrington, the executive director of the Vermont Medical Society, the next witness, basically repeated what he had said to the Health and Welfare Committee last week: the Vermont Medical Association opposes any law that interferes with the freedom of doctors to practice medicine ethically, as they are currently doing very well in Vermont.  One of the pro-assisted suicide senators on the committee, Timothy Ashe, pushed him very hard on doctors here in Vermont who he said are already providing medical assistance for ending life.  Harrington replied that a doctor who did that, would be violating the ethical standards of the Vermont Medical Society.  Senator Sears, the chair of the committee and a strong opponent of assisted suicide,  then brought out a letter from retired Bennington surgeon Eugene Grabowski, describing this bill as “Death with Dispatch.”  Another proponent, Senator Jeanette White, said she disagreed with the experts who had testified that pain can be managed.  Harrington respectfully disagreed with her.

Next to testify was the bishop of Burlington, Salvatore Matano, who was there at the express request of Senator Sears.  Sears said it was very important that one of the witnesses speak from a moral perspective.  Bishop Matano said he based his testimony on 41 years of priestly ministry to sick, elderly and dying people.  He spoke of how much he respects the medical people and the families who care for the dying.  He fears that Vermont will become a “death” state to which people will move in order to take advantage of assisted suicide.

Mark Kaufman, the advocacy counsel for the Vermont Council for Independent Living, told the committee that the members of the council seek help not to die but for their basic needs, things like power chairs.  He asked whether there could be any true choice here.  Assisted suicide, he said, is inherently pressuring on vulnerable people, who fear bankrupting and burdening their families.  This bill creates an illusion of safeguards and protections, which are not adequate if even one unchosen death occurs.

Katherine Tucker, the legal director of Compassion and Choices, repeated the proponents’ mantra that the fifteen years of Oregon’s experience has proven assisted suicide to be safe and to provide choice. Senator Sears asked her for proof that there wouldn’t be a slippery slope like the one that is well-established to have occurred in the Netherlands.  Her reply was that the culture in the Netherlands is different from that in the U.S.  (This is interesting in the light of her willingness to impose the culture of Oregon on Vermont.) Sears then asked about the different ways we describe the act that takes place under the Oregon law.  Her response was that the proponents wanted “a value neutral and accurate description” of what’s taking place.  (Does anyone in the world think “death with dignity” is value neutral?)

Norm Smith, an attorney from Essex Junction, VT, told the committee that the bill is filled with illusions. Nothing in the bill invites the discussion of real options.  The regular family doctor will probably not be involved, because most doctors won’t assist in suicides; the prescribing and concurring doctor will come from advocacy groups and may be known to the patient for only two weeks.    The experience of taking the lethal dose will be very unpleasant, requiring the patient to take a large quantity of foul tasting liquid.  What will happen when the drugs don’t work?  The written requests will require little from the patient except his signature, because they will have already been filled out by advocates.  The meeting with the strange doctors will be brief.  The safeguards will end with the prescribing period.  After the prescription has been filled, there are no witnesses required.  There is no protection in the bill from forcing the patient to take the drugs.  The death certificate will list the underlying cause of death rather than its real cause, barbiturate poisoning.  In his legal opinion, this bill would provide for the falsifying of death certificates. The bill is very flawed and does not protect patients.