By Jennifer Popik, JD
Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
Editor’s note. While my family and I are on vacation, we are running some of our favorite NRL News Today stories from the last four months, entries from our “Roe at 40″ series, and an occasional update.
After a decade-long and hard-fought battle, the Vermont legislature has passed a doctor-prescribed suicide measure which is expected to be signed shortly by Governor Peter Shumlin. Shumlin has long vowed to help pass a physician-assisted suicide law.
The bill allows physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication.
The Vermont Senate passed the proposal with 16 in favor and 14 opposed. The House approved the bill by a slightly wider margin, 75 to 65.
Once Shumlin signs the bill, Vermont will become the first state in the nation to decriminalize assisted suicide through a legislative vote. Vermont is only the third state to approve such a measure joining Washington and Oregon. However their assisted suicide laws were passed by ballot measures rather than through the legislative process.
Vermont is also the first east coast state to approve such a measure. Similar efforts to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide have recently failed in New England. This November, voters rejected Ballot Question 2 in Massachusetts. A Connecticut bill lacked the support to even move it out of committee in 2013, and this month, Maine’s Health and Human Services Committee rejected a similar bill on a vote of 10-2.
For the first three years, the Vermont law grants doctors immunity from prosecution for providing a lethal dose of medication if they follow a loose list of rules, including making sure the patient is terminally ill and making a voluntary, informed decision. In 2016, that list of rules expires, with the hope that doctors will have established their own personal guidelines.
After the rules expire, the law protects physicians from civil or criminal liability, and from any sort of professional misconduct charges. The law will still require informed consent, mandating that doctors inform patients of “all feasible end-of-life services,” including palliative care and hospice, but it no longer mandates when or how doctors respond to requests, as long as “the patient makes an independent decision to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.”
While Oregon and Washington have had a similar law for many years, any so-called safeguards have been mainly illusory.
For example, there is no assurance that this is something patients are “choosing.” The Oregonian newspaper has long chronicled abuses such as patients with dementia receiving lethal doses, the state Medicaid program placing pressure on patients receiving expensive cancer drugs, and studies showing people getting lethal prescriptions not for pain, but because they fear they are becoming a “burden.” (See “False Happy Face of Oregon Assisted Suicide.” http://nrlc.cc/13ln3nu.)
What is even more shocking is that this Vermont bill contains even fewer of these “safeguards” than Oregon’s model, and removes nearly every penalty for doctors going beyond the scope of the bill.
Dr. Edward Mahoney, president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, said in a statement, “[T]his [law] will result in the collection of incomplete, inaccurate and insufficient data; does not safeguard patients from abuse; and makes it impossible to determine whether physician-assisted suicide is being practiced outside the framework of the law. The diverse coalition opposing assisted suicide will continue to work against this unwise policy regardless of the legislative outcome.” (See http://finance.yahoo.com/news/statement-vermont-alliance-ethical-healthcare-181200068.html.)
While the pro-assisted suicide Compassion & Choices is celebrating Vermont’s passage of the law, it becomes more important than ever to expose the danger of these sorts of laws, and keep them from spreading.
In nearby New Jersey, A3328 would establish another law modeled after Oregon’s. The bill was approved by the Assembly health committee, and more hearings are expected any day.
If passed by the New Jersey legislature, the Act, as now written, would have to be submitted to Governor Chris Christie for his approval or veto. To override a veto a 2/3 vote of each house of the state legislation would be required.
As now written the legislation would then be placed on the ballot for voters’ approval or rejection at the next general election. However, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, has indicated that he may seek to amend the bill so that it does not require voter approval.
The doctor-prescribed suicide lobby is well-funded, aggressive, and seeking less and less restrictions- as evidenced by this extremely permissive Vermont law. It is crucial to expose the inaccuracy of the claim that “safeguards” can effectively prevent undoubted abuse, and that assisted suicide can ever really be a choice.
More information on how the safeguards are an illusion is available here: www.nrlc.org/MedEthics/WhySafeguardsDontWork.pdf
Pro-lifers need to show how all life has value – and that true compassion supports life at every stage. We don’t fix problems by killing the patients. We ought to focus to be on saving as many lives as possible and having people’s quality of life be as high as it can be.
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