Sinding: Time for a full Senate vote on death with dignity bill

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Steven Sinding of Manchester.

The popular death with dignity bill, which would give terminally ill Vermonters choice and control at the end of life, should be voted on by the full Senate. It should not be bottled up in a legislative committee by a few powerful lawmakers.

Last Friday, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, summarily and unilaterally shut down any further discussion or debate on S.103, the death with dignity bill.

Single handedly, these two senators decided to not allow the full Senate a chance to vote on the issue despite the fact that a large number of senators – 11 out of 30 – have sponsored the bill and, by all accounts, a full Senate vote would be close.

Interestingly, both senators’ constituents seem to strongly support the proposed right for terminally ill Vermonters to have choice and control at the very end of their lives. When asked in a recent and well-respected Zogby International poll if the respondent would support or oppose legislation to “give a mentally competent adult, dying of a terminal disease with a prognosis of less than 6 months to live, the right to request and take medication to peacefully hasten death?” Windsor voters favored such a law by an overwhelming margin of 80 percent to 14 percent and Bennington voters favored it by 74 percent to 16 percent.

Sen. Sears correctly points out that this is a very emotional and personal issue for all concerned. Indeed, he repeatedly has labeled death with dignity as one those rare legislative issues of conscience and conviction, where his personal beliefs should trump his constituents’ beliefs. The question then becomes, should Sens. Sears and Campbell be permitted to impose the convictions of only two senators upon the entire Vermont Senate? Or should the full Senate be allowed to express their convictions on an issue of such magnitude?

Sen. Campbell has expressed his personal opposition to this law on numerous occasions. However, he has publicly made it a point, on at least a half dozen occasions, that he would not use his leadership role to block the bill. It is therefore confusing why he joined Sen. Sears in not permitting the full Senate a chance to discuss the bill.

It is also disconcerting that the bill was assigned to a committee where it has never, in a decade, gone before. We can only wonder what role key senators had in this tricky procedural maneuver? If the bill had been sent to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where it has gone before, a full Senate vote would be more likely.

Finally, and perhaps even more important than the procedural politics described here are factual disconnects between the opponents’ fears and allegations and the 14 years of actual findings and data from Oregon and Washington state. None of those charges or fears has come to pass in Oregon, and we should not allow our debate to be governed by half truths and misinformation.

Facts matter. If the full Senate debate is permitted, perhaps facts will prevail. No Vermonter, doctor, religious group, or anyone is forced into using this law. It is about personal choice and control for those already dying in their final days. No one should be able to impose their religion or convictions or unfounded fears on others.

A debate by the full Senate would provide transparency and a clear consideration of this important issue. Sens. Campbell and Sears should take action to allow a vote in the full Senate.


  1. John freitag :

    Excellent anaylisis of a very sad situation

  2. George Plumb :

    Thanks Steven for presenting some valuable facts. I just turned seventy-five and who knows how many days or years I have left or what the end will be like. I do know that under certain conditions I would want to be able to have that choice available to me. I have thought about the starvation process but I would much rather make it a quick process instead. I hope the Vermont legislature gives me that choice.

  3. Sharon Toborg :

    Advocates of doctor-prescribed suicide have had many opportunities to present their case to the Legislature, and every time they have failed to persuade them to enact the Bill. This is no “tricky procedural maneuver”, it’s the legislative process. If supporters are unhappy, the process allows them to bring it to the floor in other ways. What is unprecedented is the Governor’s openess about his intention to bully the Legislature to get what he wants. In a recent Bennington Banner article, Shumlin is quoted as saying: “There’s a few senators, I think, that might not yet be expressing their conscience. They might be being loyal to the Senate leadership, and I might have been able to prevail.” I can just see Shumlin now, slapping the baseball bat in his hand, “reminding” certain Senators that they do not appear to be voting their conscience and they had better start. Or else.

  4. William Boardman :

    Senators Sears and Campbell both have histories littered with anti-democratic behavior, so this is no big surprise. People in public office sometimes have a hard time recognizing when they’ve outlived their usefulness to their communities.

  5. Dave Bellini :

    It’s just wrong to promote government sponsored/endorsed suicide. I agree with the disability rights advocates who advised against this.

  6. D M Hoopes :

    Personal beliefs should never trump constituents beliefs; legislator knowledge based on facts or expeience is another matter. But “feelings” or “beliefs” is no justifiction for a vote. Quite the reverse, Sears needs to recuse himself – immediately.

  7. Kitty de Bruin :

    I feel it should be available for a person to choose for themselves at what point they would like to say ‘enough is enough’. The people against this have NO RIGHT to say that I can not make that choice! It is MY CHOICE!!!! If the bill passes, you do not have to take part.. that is YOUR CHOICE…. I will choose to die with dignity and not be that an empty shell with a beating heart live in some God forsaken nursing home somewhere!

  8. Dick Sears :

    When I agreed to hold hearings on the bill it was with the understanding that there was no guarantee that the bill would get to a vote in committee, let alone on the senate floor. When I met with the Governor and told him that I would not be a party to voting the bill out adversely, a rarely used parliamentary procedure. The Judiciary Committee was split 3 opposed to 2 in favor of the bill and I had scheduled a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9:15 am on Friday March 16th. The matter was complicated by the fact that the Vice Chair of the committee Sen. Nitka had been seriously injured in a fall the night before and was in the Central Vermont Hospital intensive care unit. I spoke to the Senate Secretary John Bloomer who along with the Lt. Governor is the final voice on the rules of the Vermont Senate. Secretary Bloomer informed me that a bill can not advance on a 2-2 vote and a Senator cannot vote by phone.

    At that point and in consultation with the President Pro Tempore I decided to not move further with the legislation, since there was no way to move it with out the adverse vote. This Session we have taken up at least three bills in Senate Judiciary that the committee decided not to have a vote on and that will not get to the Senate floor.

    The truth is the bill did not have the votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee, if it did it would have moved.

  9. Nora Miller :

    Senator Sears feels so strongly about the issue of Death with Dignity that he chose to act on his own conscience over the wishes of his constituents who disagree with him. Those who want Death with Dignity merely ask for the same right–to choose to act on *their* conscience over the wishes of those who disagree with them. If one choice is right, how is the other not also?



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