Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed into law what Compassion & Choices, a group that advocates suicide, calls a "breakthrough" moment. In doing so, Shumlin approved a law that, according to the advocacy group, supposedly “will let dying, mentally competent people determine when they have endured enough suffering and empowers them to end their lives with dignity. Specifically, it will provide criminal, civil and professional protections for physicians who prescribe medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients that they can ingest to achieve a peaceful death.” Vermont is the first state to approve such a law legislatively.
"Vermonters who face terminal illness and are in excruciating pain at the end of their lives now have control over their destinies. This is the right thing to do," said Shumlin on May 20.
The law makes Vermont the first state in the eastern United States, and the fourth state nationwide, to have such a law on the books.
In a release, the leader of Compassion & Choices, Barbara Coombs Lee said she approved, saying, "This historic achievement is a political breakthrough that will boost support for death-with-dignity bills nationwide." The Compassion & Choices president, a physician assistant, was the co-author of Oregon’s so-called Death-with-Dignity law and also served as an advisor in successfully passing similar legislation in neighboring Washington State. Both were ballot initiatives passed by popular vote. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Montana ruled in a case brought by Compassion & Choices, Baxter v. Montana, that the mountain state's “public policy supports mentally competent, terminally ill patients being able to choose aid in dying.”
"Gov. Shumlin and Vermont legislators have shattered a barrier by becoming the first politicians to show the courage to enact a death-with-dignity law," added Coombs Lee. "Given the high margin of public support for end-of-life choices nationwide, it is only a matter of time before legislatures in Massachusetts,New Jersey, and other states that are currently considering death-with-dignity bills enact them into law."
The Vermont law will have requirements similar to the Oregon and Washington laws, but the Vermont requirements will expire after a three-year period. It is then that the Vermont law will follow the model in Montana. Since 1997, 673 people have killed themselves in Oregon with drugs prescribed under the law, the Oregon health department reported earlier this year. In Massachusetts, voters narrowly defeated last year a ballot measure to legalize doctor-assisted suicide by a margin of 51-49.
Expressing opposition to the measure when it was passed by the Vermont legislature last week, was the Roman Catholic diocese of Burlington. On its website, the diocese stated, “Physician-assisted suicide will forever transform the role of physician from one who preserves life to one who takes life.” The diocese added, “True compassion calls us to embrace those who are dying, not provide them with the means to end their lives.”
The new law allows prescribing lethal substances to patients suffering from “incurable and irreversible disease,” in physicians’ view, and who are expected to live but six months or less. The patient’s physicians must agree that the patient’s diagnosis is terminal and that the patient is capable of informed consent. In order to be prescribed the lethal drugs, patients must request them three times, with a 15-day period between the requests, and then self-administer. Governor Shumlin said in advance of the signing that the law offers Vermonters “a choice to control their destiny and avoid unnecessary suffering.”
Opponents of the bill have said it could encourage people to kill themselves out of fear they are imposing a burden on their family or out of undue influence from potential heirs.
Catholic Bishop Salvatore R. Matano of Burlington denounced “doctor-prescribed suicide” in a letter published on January 22. “As we care for the child so must we care for all persons in the vast spectrum of life,” the bishop said. “When we subjectively determine when life begins and ends, when it is viable or not, when it is too burdensome to endure, we begin a path toward self-destruction. Life is no longer precious, but just another commodity in the business of living.”
Bishop Matano expressed the fear that the new law will allow health insurance companies and the government to encourage sick people to end their lives instead of seeking effective treatment. According to the bishop, two such cases have occurred already in states where the form of suicide is legal. Willfully killing those who are sick, disabled or dying, said the bishop, is “morally unacceptable and a tragic offense against life.”
According to USA Today, Bob Ullrich, a board member of Patient Choices Vermont, said of the signing “It means peace of mind and comfort to a lot of people, including me, that I hope no one ever has to use the law, but to know every day of your life that it’s there should such an occurrence happen.” While the venue for the signing was packed with supporters, their were detractors as well. “We’re here as witnesses,” said opponent Carolyn McMurray of a group called True Dignity Vermont is encouraging Vermonters to report abuses of the law. “We believe this bill was drafted hastily.”
Shumlin said that the May 20 signing also takes place on his father's 88th birthday. The governor said that his mother says she supports the new law because it gives her option if she becomes ill and in pain.
Since the law goes into effect immediately, physicians and medical facilities are trying to determine how to participate with the law, even while bureaucrats are coming up with regulations for physicians to follow. Media reports suggest that it is unlikely that any physicians in Vermont will act immediately to terminate their patients.
Within the next 30 days, Vermont's Health Department will prepare guidelines for physicians to follow. They are granted immunity from prosecution if they follow the state's requirements, which include making sure the patient is acting voluntarily and is of sane mind. Those guidelines will expire in three years. The physician directing the state health department supports the new law. Vermont's attorney general plans to discuss with his staff how on how to interpret the law and how his office will cooperate with the health department.
True Dignity called on anyone who feels that he or she is being coerced into suicide, or knows anyone being coerced, to call their hotline. For information, see: http://truedignityvt.org.