Wednesday January 30, 2013

While assisted suicide is a common law crime in Vermont, legislation is being considered that will change that.

On Tuesday Vermont lawmakers heard testimony from former Gov. Madeleine Kunin in support of pending assisted suicide legislation. Known as "death with dignity" legislation by its supporters and "physician-assisted suicide" by its opponents, the legislation would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who express a wish to end their own lives.

Kunin cited the example of her brother, former state Sen. Edgar May, who died Dec. 27 at the age of 83. May, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, suffered a stroke in early December.

Kunin, a known supporter of assisted suicide legislation, told a state Senate committee Tuesday that after his stroke her brother wanted to end his life.

"I was there at his bedside for almost two weeks," Kunin said. "He told me had had made a decision, and he said the words, ‘I want to die.'"

She added that May "made his wishes very, very clear to the physician" at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tucson, Ariz., where he died, according to an Associated Press report.

If the Death with Dignity legislation passes in Vermont, the state would join a few others that have enacted similar laws. Oregon passed a Death with Dignity Act in 1997, which allows physician-assisted suicide for patients with less than six months to live. Washington passed similar legislation in 2008. A 2009 court ruling in Montana also legalized assisted suicide in that state.

Other states continue to debate similar measures. Last year in Massachusetts, a Death with Dignity referendum question was narrowly defeated.

Globally, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland have legalized the practice. Countries including Canada, Germany, France and Spain continue to debate the issue.

The debate also rages in Vermont. Per the AP, on Tuesday evening, more than 200 people packed the House chamber to argue both for and against the measure.

Judy Murphy of Bennington described sitting with one terminally ill friend. "She ended her life by starving herself," she said, adding that it took eight days. "She should have had the choice of death with dignity."

The bill would allow patients given six months or less to live by at least two doctors to declare their wish to die three times -- once in writing -- during a 15-day period and then be given a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates, which the patient would go home to take.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and chairwoman of the Health and Welfare Committee, said she expected to have her committee approve the bill by Friday.

From there, it is slated to go the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has already agreed to allow it to get to the Senate floor, but may do so with a recommendation that the full Senate vote against it.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he hopes the law that would allow doctors under certain conditions to help terminally ill patients end their lives will pass this year.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he takes a dim view of the idea, both because of his religious convictions -- he's Roman Catholic -- and because he believes it will get the government too involved in difficult decisions better left to physicians, patients and families.

"The bill has far-reaching implications in the area of doctor-patient relationships," he said earlier this month.

The proposed legislation does indeed have far-reaching implications.

Patients, and especially terminally ill patients, need to know the host of treatment options that are available to them. These include palliative care, psychiatric therapy, and hospice.

If this kind of death is to be an option, is should be put to the voters of Vermont to decide, as was the case in our neighboring state.

~Michelle Karas