Judge Geoffrey Crawford, for U.S. District Court of Vermont in Rutland, dismissed the case Wednesday on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. The decision effectively keeps the controversial law in place.
The plaintiffs, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare Inc. and Christian Medical and Dental Associations Inc. alleged that Vermont’s physician-assisted suicide law, Act 39 of 2013, violates the U.S. Constitution.
The groups said that even though the law does not require all physicians to write lethal prescriptions for patients who are seeking them, doctors who disagree with physician-assisted suicide should not be required to refer patients to other doctors who may be willing to write the prescription.
The lawsuit claimed that requiring doctors to refer patients seeking physician-assisted suicide was a violation of their rights under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and religion, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides equal protection under the law.
The defendants were the director of the Vermont Medical Practice Board, the members of the Vermont Medical Practice Board, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation.
The Attorney General’s office represented the state in court, and moved to dismiss the case.
“Plaintiffs challenge requirements that do not exist (in Act 39), and object to practices they have no obligation to carry out,” the Attorney General’s office argued. “They allege no injury sufficient to support (legal) standing and their claims fail as a matter of law.”
Crawford said the court reviewed Act 39 in detail “to determine whether the Act imposes any obligation on physicians who do not choose to prescribe lethal medication or in other way participate in assisted suicide” and concluded, “the answer is that Act 39 does not.”
“With no affirmative obligations under Act 39, the plaintiffs’ Vermont members may not need the court’s protection,” the decision said. “Vermont members are not at risk, even when they care for a terminally ill patient otherwise eligible for assisted suicide and fail to inform their patient because the Act contains no duty to counsel or prescribe a lethal dose of medication.”
Steven H. Aden, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in the press release Wednesday that doctors “face a very real conflict in this situation” and are “definitely exploring their legal options” in the wake of the decision.
“Vermont health care workers just want to act consistently with their reasonable and time-honored convictions without fear of government punishment,” Aden said.
Since the law passed in 2013, the Department of Health has received 49 requests from patients seeking to hasten the end of their life in accordance with Act 39.