Health Care

Death with dignity bill falls on Senate floor

Hinda Miller

Sen. Hinda Miller argues for suspending Senate rules and allow floor debate on the controversial "death with dignity" bill Thursday afternoon. VTD/Alan Panebaker

The long-proposed “death with dignity” bill will have to wait another year to see if Vermont legislators support or oppose it.

In an 18-11 vote Thursday afternoon, the Senate voted against suspending the rules to allow discussion of the bill, which the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare attached as an amendment to a bill prohibiting minors from using tanning beds. Supporters and opponents of the bill filled every seat in the Senate to watch lawmakers debate the justification for such an unorthodox proposal.

Critics of the last-minute amendment said it was a blatant violation of the rules that allow only “germane” bills to be attached as amendments.

Senators have proposed the bill, which would allow terminally ill patients to decide to end their lives with the assistance of a doctor, for the past 10 years but it has never reached full debate on the floor.

The House debated the proposal and voted it down in 2007.

Sen. Hinda Miller, who introduced the amendment in the Senate Health and Welfare committee earlier this week, said the proposal was “destiny.” This is Miller’s last session since she is not running for re-election.

The proposal, Miller said, was a last resort.

“There are certain situations where the rules are made to be broken,” Miller said. “I think this is something bigger than the rules right now.”

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Supporters said committee chairs have consistently blocked the bill from getting to the floor.

“For 10 years we’ve had this bill, and for 10 years it’s stayed in committees with no hope of getting out,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, chair of the Health and Welfare committee.

Those who voted against the bill’s relevance to the tanning bill argued for the policy of creating legislation based on thorough testimony.

Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, spoke strongly against the move by the Health and Welfare committee. His committee took testimony on the death with dignity bill. Three members opposed it, he said, and two supported it. When Sen. Alice Nitka, who did not support the bill, was hospitalized, the committee was deadlocked, prohibiting a vote, Sears said.

Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears speaks on the Senate floor Thursday. VTD/Alan Panebaker

Sears opposed the bill, but he said his main complaint was the end-run around traditional process of a committee hearing testimony and making an informed decision.

“I can take licks, and I can take hits, but when the process breaks down, we the Senate lose, and the people of Vermont are the bigger losers,” he said.

Although the Senate voted against suspending the traditional process to agree to discuss the bill, which Lt. Gov. Phil Scott deemed was not germane to the tanning bed issue, senators did discuss the underlying bill.

Sears warned against the potential risk of increased suicides due to the state “normalizing” the practice.

Others, including Sens. Diane Snelling and Dick McCormack, said much of the resistance to the underlying bill is grounded in religions that view suicide as a sin.

“My choices should not be restricted because of someone else’s religious preference,” Snelling said.

For many senators, just getting some sort of debate onto the floor was a victory.

Sen. Anthony Pollina voted for the bill in the Health and Welfare committee but against it on the Senate floor.

Pollina said limited discussion was better than none. He said he voted against discussing the bill on the merits because he had concerns that people would vote based on how they felt about the process rather than the death with dignity proposal.

“I had a fear that with the way in which it came to floor it would allow people on the fence to vote ‘no’ because they didn’t like the process,” he said.

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Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said “it came down to a matter of process.”

“It has to be done the right way,” Campbell said. “For anyone to think this bill was not going to go to Senate Judiciary, they have not read the bill. The entire bill deals with judicial issues.”

Campbell said the crux of the bill is to relieve doctors from liability for assisting patients in ending their lives, which is, he said, a judicial rather than a health issue.

The Vermont bill is based on an Oregon law that allows terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of medication. Under the bill, patients would have to consult with multiple doctors, have a terminal diagnosis and be deemed of sound mind. Proponents say polls show a majority of Vermonters support a death with dignity bill. Some medical organizations have lobbied against it, saying it violates the ethics of doctors and nurses.

Patient Choices Vermont, which supports the bill, issued a statement praising senators for bringing the issue to the Senate floor.

“Despite this decision, we appreciate the attempt by our Senate supporters to bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote,” it read. “We celebrate their courage and willingness to discuss an issue that is so important to so many Vermonters.”

Editor’s note: Sen. Hinda Miller was misquoted in this story. She said the proposal was “destiny,” not “fate.” The story has been corrected.


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Alan Panebaker

About Alan

Alan Panebaker is a staff writer for He covers health care and energy issues. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2005 and cut his teeth reporting for the Ashland Daily Tidings and Mail Tribune newspapers in Southern Oregon where he covered education and the environment. A dedicated whitewater kayaker and backcountry skier, he later wrote a weekly outdoors column for the Anchorage Press in Anchorage, Alaska, and continues to publish freelance work for Canoe & Kayak magazine. Alan took a three-year hiatus from journalism to attend Vermont Law School. After passing the bar, he decided to return to his journalism roots and start chasing stories again. He lives in Montpelier.

Postscript: Alan died in a kayaking accident on Sept. 19, 2012, shortly after he took a job with American Whitewater. We here at VTDigger mourn his passing.

Email: [email protected]

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