Death with dignity bill won't see vote; dies in committee



Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Progress on legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives with prescribed medication came to a screeching halt Friday and the bill will not advance this year.

"I can accept the criticism"

The death with dignity bill, as proponents call it, or physician-assisted suicide as it is known by opponents, will not clear the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Friday that it would not even go to a vote in his committee.

"I can accept the criticism. It was my decision along with the Senate Pro Tem (Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor)," he said.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill, S.103, early this week. A number of people spoke on both sides of the issue. Sears said when he scheduled the hearings that he was making no promise about advancing the bill.

It became clear on Friday that it would not advance this year. Sears said he chose not to hold a vote on the bill in part because Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, the committee's vice chairwoman, was in the hospital and could not be there. The bill was destined to fail in the committee by a 5 to 3 vote if Nitka was present, he said.

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"We didn't hold a formal vote and some people may feel cheated," Sears said.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and his office pushed hard to have the bill advance to the full Senate, Sears said. Nonetheless, the bill did not have support, he said.

"I just got a shame-on-you look from the governor's office," Sears said. "They're not happy. The governor really wanted this to at least be out on the floor."

According to Sears, Shumlin wanted the committee to use a rare tactic that would advance the bill with a recommendation to the full Senate that it be defeated. "It's a poor way of doing business. I can really only remember one time that was done," Sears said.

Friday was the Legislature's "crossover" day. Any bills that had a chance of becoming law had to clear committees Friday under Senate rules. The Rules Committee could grant an exemption, Sears said, but that is unlikely and not supported by Campbell.

Proponents of the bill said it had a chance to pass if it had advanced to the full Senate.

"We are disappointed that Senators Sears and Campbell have decided not to allow a vote in the full Senate -- a vote that everyone has agreed this is a vote of personal conscience," said Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont. "As advocates, we are prepared to fight for a vote on the Senate floor this year. We continue to see a path to passage. The Senate vote is too close to call. If the issue gets an unobstructed vote on the floor, there is a real chance it could pass."

Sears said he expects the legislation will be introduced again next year.

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