Assisted death legislation heads to Vt. Senate

Saturday February 9, 2013

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate is set to vote next week on legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication doses to terminally ill patients who request it, although a legislative committee recommended Friday that it be defeated.

The measure, dubbed "end-of life choices" by supporters and "physician-assisted suicide" by opponents, was sent to the full Senate for a vote Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee but, in an unusual move, with a recommendation it not pass. Committees looking to kill bills normally just never complete work on them, meaning they never come to a vote of the full legislative body.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said the 3-1 vote -- one member was absent -- fulfilled a promise Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell made to his fellow Democrats in December as he sought support to retain his leadership post.

Campbell and Sears both oppose the legislation but agreed to let it be debated in the full Senate, Sears said.

"That was the deal made in the Democratic caucus," Sears said. "Senator Campbell, as part of his agreement for re-election, and I agreed to do it as chair of Judiciary," Sears said. "I could have said no ... but I said yes at the Democratic caucus in December that I was willing to vote it out adversely."

The Judiciary Committee’s vote to give the bill a negative recommendation came a week after the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted 5-0 to support the measure.

The negative recommendation sets up an odd dynamic for Tuesday, with two votes necessary to actually pass the bill. Supporters must first vote no because the question up for consideration is whether the Senate should reject the measure. If supporters win that vote, a second vote would have to be held to grant preliminary approval, with a final vote then scheduled for Thursday.

The votes are expected to be very close, with both supporters and opponents of the legislation saying they’ve lined up about 13 votes each in the 30-member Senate, with four undecided as of Friday.

Another path would be for lawmakers to reject the move to kill the bill when it comes up for a vote on Tuesday and then take a recess to work up a series of amendments before resuming floor debate. One of the issues that could arise then concerns what the patient’s death certificate should say about the cause and manner of death. As currently drafted the bill would block any mention of the fact that the patient had died by taking overdose of medication, instead saying the death was due to the patient’s underlying illness.

If the legislation ultimately passes, Vermont’s law would be modeled on one in place for 15 years in Oregon that sets up several safeguards to ensure that patients opting to end their own lives are of sound mind and are not being unduly pressured by family members or others.


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