MONTPELIER -- In a debate that split majority Democrats and sparked impassioned debate among lawmakers, the Vermont Senate on Tuesday took a big step toward approving legislation to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives.
The Senate’s Judiciary Committee refused to recommend that the full chamber consider proposed legislation for "end-of-life choices." However the Senate voted 17-13 to ignore the committee, meaning the bill will be up for preliminary approval on Wednesday. If it clears that hurdle, final Senate passage could happen on Thursday before the bill is sent to the House.
Tuesday began with a debate mainly between two Democratic committee chairs: Sen. Claire Ayer of Addison County, chairwoman of the Health and Welfare Committee, described the measure and defended it against criticisms from Sen. Richard Sears of the Judiciary Committee. Sears was one of three members of that panel who opposed the measure, while two supported it.
The bill would allow patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live to get a prescription for a lethal dose of medicine. Two doctors would have to agree with the prognosis; the patient would have to be mentally competent and able to administer the drug on his or her own. The patient would have to ask for the lethal dose three times -- twice orally and once in writing, followed by a 48-hour waiting period before being given the prescription.
Ayer said the bill was about expanding choices for terminally ill patients. "This bill asks for one more option for dying patients. It allows them to participate in their deaths," she said.
If the bill passes, Vermont’s legislature would be the first in the country to pass such a measure; similar laws were passed by referendum in Oregon and Washington state; a referendum failed in November in Massachusetts.
Oregon’s law is called the Death With Dignity Act, but both sides in the Vermont debate agreed to drop that terminology after disability rights groups complained that some of the people they represent might face a question about whether they were leading sufficiently dignified lives.
Sen. Margaret Flory, R-Rutland and a critic of the bill, said her father had a dignified life and death without taking a lethal dose of medication.
"I understand the difficulties" with a patient and family going through a terminal illness, Flory said. "We all fear pain. We all fear being incapacitated. ... We like to feel that we are in control of our lives, and therefore in control of our deaths. We aren’t. We never will be."
Sears pointed to the case of Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wrote in a column in the Cape Cod Times that the senator was given two to four months to live after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and instead had 15 months more of productive life, legislating in the Senate, seeing President Barack Obama get elected to his first term and throwing out the first pitch on opening day at Fenway Park.
The bill is expected to see several amendments during the next two days of debate.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, said he wants to see a provision added that would require that family members be notified when a patient requests the lethal medication. Ayer said that would violate medical privacy, as well as a federal law protecting that privacy.
Sen. John Campbell, the Senate president pro tem and an opponent of the measure, said some patients in Oregon have obtained the lethal medication and then not taken it until their condition worsens and they are no longer competent to do so.
Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, said he was his mother’s main caregiver in her final months. "I spent four months sleeping in a sleeping bag beside her bed."
She would not have wanted the lethal drug while she was still well enough to communicate with family members, Westman said. It was only after she was no longer capable of giving herself the dose that she might have wanted it, he added.
Requiring a patient to be in full possession of faculties to take advantage of the physician-aided death had it "backwards from my point of view," Westman said.