It was a political pep rally of sorts in Montpelier, but without much pep, largely because only 20 people attended, and the issue at hand, Vermont’s “Death With Dignity” bill, is as sobering as it is controversial.
Nancy Niedzielski of Washington state, a guest speaker for Patient Choices Vermont, who helped spearhead her state’s 2008 law allowing physician-assisted suicide, was asked to make the case for such a law in Vermont. In doing so, she told a heart-rending story of her husband’s death from brain cancer and how she had vowed to him on his deathbed that she would take up a fight for death-with-dignity rights.
“I ask you to be proactive in assuring this law is passed (in Vermont),” she said before the group of mostly gray-haired supporters at the Pavilion Office Building auditorium. Her visit to Vermont this week included appearances in Ferrisburgh, Waterbury, Wilder and Danville.
The bill endorsed by Patient Choices Vermont would replicate Washington’s law allowing terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to receive drugs, prescribed by a physician, that would quickly end their lives. The proposed law would include various measures to prevent abuse.
A death-with-dignity bill was defeated three years ago by the Vermont House by a vote of 82-63 after a number of emotional debates and hearings and after strong opposition from Vermont Right to Life, the anti-abortion organization; several groups representing the disabled; and various religious groups, most notably the Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
Opponents argued that that the measure would violate the sanctity of life and that it could put at risk Vermonters who are most vulnerable.
Supporters of the bill, among them Amy Shollenberger, who organized the forum, are hoping the measure will have a better chance of passing this session thanks in part to support from Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. The bill that had been defeated had been opposed by his predecessor, Republican Jim Douglas.
The measure was re-introduced in the House this session by Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, who tapped 42 other legislators to serve as co-sponsors. The measure remains in a House committee.
If Vermont were to pass such a law, it would become a member of a small fraternity. Only three states currently allow physician-assisted suicide: Oregon and Washington, by virtue of statewide referendums that resulted in state laws in 1997 and 2008, respectively; and Montana, whose Supreme Court two years ago declared that Montana had no existing law that could be employed to ban it.
Niedzielski told the group that her husband suffered an agonizing death at age 55 from a cancer that had metastasized through his spinal cord. She told of harsh chemotherapy treatments and of unbearable physical and psychological changes.
“We knew that if the brain cancer didn’t kill him, the treatment would,” she said.
Her pledge to her husband, she said, was to put Washington on the path that Oregon had taken.
A political novice, Niedzielski quickly grasped the political ropes. She said she learned how to collect signatures, recruit volunteers and make a compelling case at public appearances. The measure passed, she said, with 60 percent of the vote.
“It was the happiest day of my life,”said Niedzielski, urging her listeners to launch a similar campaign in their state.
She said that helping a terminally ill patient in agony to die should be viewed as a loving act and as a way of honoring a patient’s fundamental human and U.S. constitutional right.
Niedzielski said there’s been no sign the law in any of the three states has been abused. In fact, she said, the measure is not even employed that much. Of 87 terminally ill patients in Washington who had been given the option to use the drugs, only 51 have done so. She said the law is important because the right to die also can give some patients great peace of mind whether they decide to exercise the option or not.
In a phone interview, Mary Hahn Beerworth, director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, said the right-to-die measure will face the same stiff opposition this session as it did three years ago.
“We are adamantly opposed to the bill,” she said. “We think it is a bad step in the wrong direction.”
She said there are not enough “Right-to-Lifers” or Catholics in the Legislature, alone, to defeat the bill, but she said concern about it now crosses both religious and partisan boundaries. Beerworth said the bill should not be construed as either “liberal” or “conservative.” The fact that Democrats have majorities in both the House and Senate is no indication the measure could pass, she said.
The Catholic Church, which views any form of suicide as sinful, also says it will oppose the bill.
The Most Rev. Salvatore Matano, the diocesan bishop, declared in a statement Thursday: “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.”
He said the bill asks those in the medical profession “to destroy the very lives they have pledged to save and comfort at life’s most critical moments.”
With a recent Zogby poll showing 64 percent of Vermonters supporting right-to-die legislation, Shollenberger believes that lawmakers can this session be persuaded to pass the bill.
She said many legislators are prone to caution and inertia, so, she advised: “Talk to your legislators!”
She and Niedzielski urged the group to view the film “How to Die In Oregon,” winner of a documentary film award at this year’s Sundance Festival.
Niedzielski said the film addresses “lies” circulated by many of the right-to-die bill’s opponents.