MONTPELIER -- The Vermont House indicated Tuesday that it will pass a bill allowing doctors in the state to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it, as a likely fight loomed with the Senate over how involved the state should be in monitoring the dying process.
For a dying patient, "the choice is not whether to die," said Rep. Sandy Haas, the Rochester Democrat/Progressive who described the House version of the bill to her colleagues. "The only questions are when and with how much suffering? This bill gives a last measure of control over the time and manner of that inevitable death."
The first rebuttal came from Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre Town, who called physician-assisted suicide "the antithesis of medical care" and a form of surrender. "It could be compared to the employee in the process of being fired saying, ‘You can’t fire me; I quit,"’ Koch said. "That’s not being in control."
The House was expected to give the measure preliminary approval late Tuesday and final approval on Wednesday, setting up a likely tussle with a sharply divided Senate.
That 30-member body was evenly divided over the bill in February when it passed a stripped down version that simply removed civil and criminal liability for health professionals and family members when a terminally ill patient takes a lethal dose of medication.
The one-page amendment was substituted for a 22-page original draft with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, an opponent of the original bill, casting the tie-breaking vote to approve it, 16-15. Backers of the Senate version said they wanted to minimize the state’s role in the process.
The House version of the bill is much closer to the measure originally introduced in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, and to "death with dignity" laws on the books in Oregon for 16 years and in Washington since 2009.
The House version contains several safeguards, including waiting periods totaling 17 days and requiring the patient to be deemed mentally competent and to make the request three times, once in writing, among other things.
As House debate began, several amendments were expected to be offered before the meat of the discussion over the philosophical issues at the center of the underlying bill. But Koch short-circuited that process with a motion to postpone consideration of the bill indefinitely, bringing at least a preview of the central debate.
The motion was defeated 51-90, but not before several members rose to tell of the deaths of their own friends and loved ones and to warn that passage of the bill could bring an increase in suicides among Vermont’s young people.
"My mother seven years ago was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. She was given less than a year to live," said Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton. "She lived for five years after the diagnosis. Would I have regretted for the rest of my life if she had made other choices that people may or may not have talked her into? Damn right."
Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, said Oregon’s suicide rate had risen 21 percent from 2000 to 2010, the first full decade after that state passed a referendum to enact the nation’s first "death with dignity" law.
"Death with dignity in Oregon has not reduced the rate of unassisted suicides," Strong said. "To the contrary, the rate has skyrocketed."
Others said there was a big distinction between a terminally ill patient given less than six months to live taking her or his own life, and a young person succumbing to depression.
"I know personally what it means to feel so bad you think you can’t go on," said Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg. "That’s not what we’re talking about here today."