A bill that would allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives with lethal doses of prescription drugs sailed smoothly through the liberal-leaning Senate Health and Welfare Committee last Friday, with a unanimous 5-0 vote.
But the legislation — deemed “Death with Dignity” by proponents and “Physician Assisted Suicide” by opponents — is about to hit a steep uphill climb.
On Tuesday, Health and Welfare passed the bill, S.77, over to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where its chair, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, is a longtime opponent and prepared to vote the bill down.
“I am opposed to the bill — firmly opposed,” Sears said before the Senate Democrats caucused for an hour on how to handle the bill. At the caucus, Sears told his fellow Dems that his committee was poised to vote down the bill 2-3.
Even if this happens, however, Sen. President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, said the bill would still get a fair hearing on the floor, which is an exception from how bills usually proceed when they are voted down in a committee.
Campbell, who also opposes the measure, told VTDigger he hopes Senate Judiciary will vote on the bill by Friday, and he wants the entire Senate to vote on the legislation next week.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, who supports the bill, said that if the bill dies in Senate, the House would not propose additional legislation.
Senate Judiciary will hear additional testimony on the bill this week, after Health and Welfare heard four days of testimony last week, and both committees held a joint public hearing that drew more than 200 concerned citizens last Tuesday.
The issue has consistently divided Vermonters of all political stripes and proved a topic that stirs strong emotions and convictions on both sides. This year’s legislation is almost identical to a bill proposed last year by a tri-partisan group of senators.
The most prominent change is a shift in palliative care requirements. Under the previous legislation, a participating physician would have needed to refer the terminally ill patient for palliative care consultation. Now, the physician would only need to inform the patient of options for palliative care, which is the providing of holistic care for patients with advanced progressive illness, from pain management to psychological, social and spiritual support and the best quality of life for patients and their families.
A key concern Sears and Campbell have about the legislation is that it allows physicians to report the underlying cause of a patient’s death as the patient’s illness, not the prescription drug overdose that actually kills them.
“One of my major objections is asking doctors to lie,” said Sears. “In the bill, you say the doctor may … call the cause of death as the underlying disease. That is calling the cause of death cancer, for example, when the cause of death is the overdose of a pill.”
Sears also argued that the Vermont Medical Society’s lack of support for the bill is a problem.
Justin Campfield, spokesman for the Vermont Medical Society, said the bill would take attention away from more urgent health care issues.
“We don’t think there should be any legislation one way or another dealing with physician-assisted suicide,” he said. “We feel this is an issue better left to patients and physicians and using the resources currently available,” Campfield said.
“I share the concern of the docs who are going to be complicit in this,” Sears said. “I share the concern of the disability community that this will force people [towards physician-assisted death]. The proponents of the bill I don’t think hold water in terms of the impact this might have on teen suicide, the impact on palliative care, the impact it might have on folks with disabilities.”
Campbell said that although he has religious issues with the bill, he is able to put his personal views aside. His major qualm with the bill, he said, is on a policy level.
“The basic issue, I think, is that the state is getting itself into the doctor-patient relationship, and I find that not only unfortunate but the wrong thing to do,” he said.