Death with dignity forum emotional


MANCHESTER -- The Mark Skinner Library was the site of an emotionally charged but largely civil conversation Thursday evening on Vermont’s Death with Dignity bill, or H.274, introduced in the House on Feb. 17.

The basement room was filled to capacity with more than 100 individuals who, by show of hands, had nearly all made up their minds beforehand. And their position was not to be left unstated, as the vast majority wore round yellow stickers reading "I oppose physician-assisted suicide," handed out beforehand as the crowd settled in.

The event was sponsored by Patient Choices Vermont and featured David Babbott, a board member of that group in support of H.274, and George Eighmey, who as an Oregon state legislator in 1997 supported the successful adoption of similar legislation in his state -- the first in the nation.

"It’s not our goal that they use the law," said Eighmey, "Our goal is to have the full range of options for this individual who is facing the end of life."

Vermont’s H.274 would allow terminally ill patients with a prognosis of less than six months to live the option of a lethal prescription, obtained from their physician. Safeguards are built in to restrict eligibility and ensure willingness and mental competence, and include a second consulting physician, palliative care consultations, three formal requests (the last in writing), and a 15-day waiting period between requests. Documentation is filed at each step along the process. The prescription would be self-administered in a liquid or semi-liquid form, often in the presence of loved ones.

Eighmey recounted his experiences over 12 years of counseling terminally ill patients in Oregon, and reviewed the state’s 13-year history with their Death with Dignity Act. Only one in six requests for a prescription under Oregon’s law are granted, he said, and one in 10 who begin the lengthy process follow through to completion.

"Thisisn’t something that is rushed into," Eighmey said, "It isn’t something people are rushing to do. But there are a handful of people -- around 40 per year -- who want thisoption because they want to say their goodbyes on their terms."

Individuals who utilize Oregon’s law represent a cross-swath of religions, politics, age, and gender. The majority are Caucasian, well-educated, and in hospice. Eighty percent had cancer. Vermont’s population represents one-sixth that of Oregon’s. Similar laws exist in Montana and Washington state.

A dialogue between speakers and audience followed the overview of Vermont’s bill and Oregon example. Those in attendance voiced opposition on religious and moral grounds, rejecting the need for the law and government purview on the matter.

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"Why do I have to have the government write a law for me to take my life?" asked one man.

"I agree with you; I agree with you 100 percent," responded Eighmey. "Why do we need a law?" The law was needed, he said, to protect the right of assistance in dying, after a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found it not constitutionally guaranteed but rather a matter of medical regulation left to the states.

The law, Eighmey said, allows those suffering from terminal illness to end life on their own terms while absolving family members and physicians of criminal liability.

Another man in the audience commented on his involvement in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he saw accountants and lawyers get around the best of safeguards, and indicated that he believed H.274 a slippery slope, leading to euthanasia. "We are going to be coerced into support," he said, through tax dollars paid toward regulation of the law.

"What we are doing," he continued, "(is) enshrining in our state law the right of a person, with the cooperation of their doctor, to take his or her life. Š The basic problem there is that we should not grant the right of a doctor to prescribe death to a person."

Kermit Gosnell, the West Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with murder, was cited as an example of what can happen when regulations go disregarded.

"This is suicide you’re talking about," said one audience member, taking issue with the bill and speakers’ avoidance of the term.

Eighmey said that the term suicide was avoided due to clauses in insurance company policies which could deny life or health insurance or other benefits.

"Suicide is generally done by the mentally unstable, physically capable, and a person who does not want to live," Eighmey said. "The people who use this law are people who are mentally capable, physically unable to continue life -- and they want to live. If they had a choice, they would live."

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