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.

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