Health Care

Senate Judiciary sends death with dignity to Senate floor without its blessing

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-1 on Friday to send the controversial “death with dignity” bill to the Senate floor early next week, despite the panel’s disapproval of the legislation.

It’s an unusual move, but Senate President John Campbell, D-Quechee, has said in recent weeks that whatever the Judiciary Committee decides, the bill will be debated on the floor, thanks to pressure from his Democratic caucus.

As expected, the Judiciary Committee voted against the bill. Committee Chairman Dick Sears, a Bennington Democrat, is firmly opposed to the bill, as he has been for years.

Although Sears has a whole raft of problems with the bill, which he called “poorly drafted” and full of items which are “just plain wrong,” his biggest objection stems from the “absolute rejection of this by the [Vermont] Medical Society and most of the doctors that I represent in Bennington County.”

“What I’ve heard loud and clear is: ‘Don’t put me in this position” from my docs [doctors],” said Sears after the vote. He added that objections from the disability community also worry him.

Sears called Campbell’s decision to force a full debate unusual but fair.

“My preference would be to follow the committee process; if the bill doesn’t have the votes, it doesn’t get out. But on this particular issue, enough people felt that it deserved the vote of the Senate,” said Sears.

According to Senate Secretary John Bloomer, the last time a similar exception happened was in 2010, on a bill related to Vermont Yankee, coming out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican from Lyndonville and the party’s minority leader in the Senate, voted against the bill in committee, but said that Senate Republicans do not have a unified position on the bill, which opponent brand as “physician assisted suicide.” He said they  will vote according to their consciences, without party pressure to vote for or against.

Sen. Tim Ashe, a Burlington Democrat, was the lone voice for the legislation in the Judiciary Committee. But Ashe also wants to amend the bill, to make it clear that whoever signs the patient’s death certificate must list the cause of death as a terminal illness or natural causes, rather than the lethal medication allowed to patients if the bill passes.

Ashe, who’s drafted several substantive amendments, wants his detailed changes to be considered, and fears that the bill might run afoul of a tight schedule, given the insistence with which senators are requesting a floor vote soon.

“I just hope that we, next week, don’t become a slave to a schedule, in a manner that is inconsistent with taking up the issues,” said Ashe in committee.

“I think we all agree that when we’re talking about life and death, the details matter, and the concept isn’t the only part of the equation,” he said earlier in the meeting.

Sears dismissed the thought that the bill is now being rushed through the legislative process, but added: “We’ll see if it’s going to get rushed through next week. If we don’t have time to make amendments and properly consider those amendments, then I’d say it was being rushed.”

The bill will be heard on the Senate floor on Tuesday morning, a date specially picked to ensure that all senators can attend and vote. The first order of the day will be to approve or reject the Judiciary’s Committee rejection of the bill, which would be the first formal indicator of the overall Senate’s sentiment on the bill.

“I think it’s a very close vote,” added Sears after the meeting. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think both sides have probably 12 or 13 solid votes, either yes or no. I think there’s four or five senators who are really undecided.”

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Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • rosemarie jackowski

    “…But Ashe also wants to amend the bill, to make it clear that whoever signs the patient’s death certificate must list the cause of death as a terminal illness or natural causes, rather than the lethal medication allowed to patients if the bill passes….” Can that be true. The death certificate has to have have false information on it?????

    Since my article was published, I have heard from people around the country. Yesterday one of the calls came from a disability rights group in Rochester, NY. Most do NOT want this legislation.

    Here is one article.

    Another one.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    This is certainly not a simple issue and should not be reduced in stature by a political process often informed in a climate of partisan pettiness.

    Have the active advocates for the passage of this bill – those who know the bill nearly word for word – responded to Senator Sears’ concerns? Are physicians statewide opposed to the bill? Is the “disability community” united in its opposition?.

    • rosemarie jackowski

      Since my article DEBATING SUICIDE was published, I have been hearing from a lot of people across the country. All who have contacted me from the ‘disability community’ oppose this Bill.

    • Dick Sears

      The vast majority of physicians statewide oppose the bill according to the Executive Director of the Vermont Medical Soiciety. In addition the Vermont State Nurses’ Association has opposed the bill in the past. The Vermont Center for Independant Living opposes the bill as does the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights.

      • Luci Stephens

        I assume that the organizations cited have all detailed the specific, objective, tangible reasons for their opposition to S. 77 as it currently reads. If not, perhaps they should be asked to do so for their relevant expertise and in light of the weight their opinions carry.

        It is very difficult for legislation to address the many moral, ethical, religious and other ‘intangible’ concerns that many have raised as their reasons for opposing this bill, and none of us are likely to change our morals, ethics, religious beliefs, etc. Perhaps, however, there is a way to craft a bill that would address the specific, objective, tangible concerns of these organizations while still allowing competent, terminal patients a reasonable, effective way to absolutely end irremediable, unendurable suffering.

        As experienced as anyone might be caring for end-of-life patients, only the terminal patient him/ herself can determine unendurable suffering, only the competent terminal patient can be legally able to request medical help in absolutely ending unendurable suffering, and only the physician can decide whether or not to grant that request.

  • sandra bettis

    c’mon folks – it’s our bodies, our lives – just like abortion, if you don’t want one, don’t have one!

    • Renée Carpenter

      Thank you!

      • Krister’s Adams

        Yes, thank you!

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Last night on WCAX, Sen Sears made an impressive statement… at one point he said: “…There is no law against suicide…”.

    That brings up a question…why is this Bill being pushed? Everyone in Vermont already has the right to die. We don’t need the government interferring. Leave us alone on this issue. This Bill seems like just one more: We’re from the government and we are here to help you.

    • Pam Ladds

      Because those of us who choose this option would like to have a peaceful, gentle, safe transition out of here. Not to die before our time but to go comfortably when the time is right. Who decides that? I do, and every other person who wants this option.

  • Luci Stephens

    A sensible response to the foregoing question about why this bill is being supported is that some reasonable, competent people who have, or know and care about people who have, truly terminal, irreversible illnesses that will involve lingering, irremediably painful (sometimes absolutely agonizing) deaths that CANNOT be made bearable by even the most wonderful, conscientious palliative care do not want to endure the horror awaiting them.

    In Nov. ’09, I sat in an in-hospital hospice room with my mother and then, in Feb/ Mar of ’12, in an ICU with my father as each died – one from kidney failure caused by a catastrophic stroke, the other from suffocation (and consequent organ failure) caused by lungs destroyed by a notorious cardiac medication. Both of my parents received the very best care (including palliative) possible, both were absolutely doomed with no hope (other than that of their loving family) of recovery, and both suffered greatly even with the best care possible. So, I really do understand, at the most basic, sympathetic level possible, why some reasonable, competent people want what they very reasonably see as another choice… and please spare me any pat bromide responses, including religious/ moral ‘prescriptives’ – they only make a bad, painful situation far worse.

    I’m not persuaded that this bill as written is the best, or even a good answer, but I do know that we do not yet have the medical science available to make the dying process bearable for everyone who has a terminal illness that will cause great suffering in spite of our best care. Until we have such medical science, some people we know and care about will have to endure the tortures of the damned while we shake our heads, shed tears, hold their hands and try to comfort them as we watch them die. If a reasonable, safe avenue is available to some of these beloved persons, and to their physicians, to absolutely alleviate their suffering, even if it might hasten their inevitable death, if the patient is competent to understand the possible consequences and make the request, and the physician is willing to grant that request, then I understand, accept and respect the request and the physician’s response to the request. At a minimum, I would hope to see physicians able to, and held harmless from, granting such competent requests in such specific, terrible circumstances.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Luci… I am sorry that your parents suffered.

    Doctors have been ‘quietly’ relieving pain for years… not only pain, but also what they might consider to be lack of quality of life. In private conversations they will admit that they ‘shorten’ lives every day when they increase the dose of pain meds.

    Did your parents make their wishes known to their doctors? Did they tell their doctors that they did not want to suffer in pain?….The story of my parents is almost the opposite of yours. My Dad was in a nursing home because he had Parkinson’s that affected his ability to swallow food. He was fed by tube. Otherwise he was OK. Without any consent from anyone, an assistant in the facility removed the feeding tube. When asked about this – we were told: Well he was going to die anyway.
    When my Mother was in the hospital on 3 separate occasions she was nearly killed because of medication errors made by the ‘hospitalist’ (a doctor who did not know her).

    There are major problems with our health care system. We need a system of Health Care Advocates.

    Your parents were blessed to have your loving support, but there are many others who would be ‘pressured’ to die because of convenience or the financial benefit of others.

    • Krister’s Adams

      Why are you so adamant about what other and their families decide? This a private matter. Another “Right to Choose”.

  • Kathy Callaghan

    I am very uneasy about this bill and its potential consequences. Based on that I don’t think it should be passed at all. But if it IS to become law, the death certificate should tell the truth, the docs should be held harmless and no doctor should be required to do this against his or her own conscience. The language should be “may”, not “shall”.

  • bob kirbach

    Personally, having a non-criminal path to take if the worst end-of-life circumstances become inevitable would be a comfort. The option to self-checkout from this mortal coil with medical assistance is something that VT legislators should be able to craft. We created Good Samaritan laws. Removing the stigma of suicide and threat of liability for those who assist in ending suffering – for dying citizens who want it – shouldn’t be an impossible task.

    • rosemarie jackowski

      But, it was an impossible task to protect the elderly/disabled even in circumstances that did not have this additional risk. What about the 300+ reported cases of abuse that were ignored? What about the 2 murders in nursing homes in southern Vermont? That’s 2 we know about – no one knows how many go undetected.

      Suicide is NOT against the law. We already have that legal right. Heck, in Bennington where most have no access to dental care, we have to learn how to do tooth extractions ourselves. We should be able to figure out how to end it all on our own, when we are ready.

      I wish things were different. But this is the real world and we are living in a 3rd world country (those of us without a lot of money).

      • rosemarie jackowski

        P.S. In all seriousness. I envision people committing suicide in SW Vermont because of lack of dental care. Sometimes the pain of an abscessed tooth is far worse than the pain of child birth.