Vt. hearings begin on assisted death bill

Wednesday January 30, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers considering legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients seeking to end their own lives heard Tuesday from former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who said her brother’s death last month only strengthened her belief that a dying patient’s wishes must be paramount.

Kunin, a longtime supporter for assisted suicide legislation, told a state Senate committee that she watched former state Sen. Edgar May slowly slip away last month.

"I was there at his bedside for almost two weeks," Kunin said. "He told me had had made a decision, and he said the words, ‘I want to die."’

The 83-year-old May "made his wishes very, very clear to the physician" at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tucson, Ariz., where he died, Kunin said.

The remarks of the former governor, who served three two-year terms from 1985 to 1990, came as the Senate Health and Welfare Committee began four days of scheduled hearings on legislation dubbed "death with dignity" by its supporters and "physician-assisted suicide" by its opponents.

Oregon has had such a law in place since 1997; Washington state since 2008. Officials and advocates involved in implementing Oregon’s law were among those scheduled to testify to Vermont lawmakers this week.

On Tuesday evening, more than 200 people packed the House chamber -- the largest room in the Statehouse -- to argue both for and against the measure.

Guy Page, of Barre, told of a son who is now in his 20s but had been emotionally disturbed and considered suicide as a teenager. Teachers and counselors had told him not even to consider that an option. Then he saw a debate about assisted death legislation.

Page told lawmakers his son called the assisted suicide idea hypocritical, saying he was told death was "never an option" but apparently fine for others.

"I saw the fear in my son’s eyes. I saw how the double standard shook him," Page said. He urged lawmakers, "Give the Tim Pages of today and tomorrow no reason whatsoever to consider suicide."

Others spoke of friends and loved ones who experienced prolonged suffering as they died.

Judy Murphy of Bennington described sitting with one terminally ill friend. "She ended her life by starving herself," she said, adding that it took eight days. "She should have had the choice of death with dignity."

The bill would allow patients give six months or less to live by at least two doctors to declare their wish to die three times -- once in writing -- during a 15-day period and then be given a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates, which the patient would go home to take.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and chairwoman of the Health and Welfare Committee, said she expected to have her committee approve the bill by Friday. From there, it is slated to go the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has already agreed to allow it to get to the Senate floor, but may do so with a recommendation that the full Senate vote against it.

The measure is drawing intense lobbying on both sides, with the group Patient Choices Vermont working for its passage and groups ranging from the Vermont Medical Society to disability-rights organizations opposing it.


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