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Having a Choice, Bearing a ‘Sweet’ Burden

While the Vermont Legislature debates making physician-assisted suicide legal, Mary Fowler, of Norwich, has been a vocal proponent of assisted suicide.(Valley News — Jennifer Hauck)

While the Vermont Legislature debates making physician-assisted suicide legal, Mary Fowler, of Norwich, has been a vocal proponent of assisted suicide.(Valley News — Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

One recent Monday, just a few days after the Vermont Senate approved an amended version of its “death with dignity” bill, Mark MacDonald blocked out three hours of his afternoon to return messages from constituents.

The Democratic senator from Williamstown estimates he has received 150 to 200 telephone messages on the topic of assisted suicide. The calls have been fairly evenly split between supporters of the bill and those who are against it.

“One side is saying you ought to be able to make the choice about this yourself,” he said. “The other side says it’s wrong.”

Mary Fowler is among the Vermonters who argue that patients deserve a choice.

The 71-year-old Norwich resident is “thoroughly engaged in life.” She plays tennis, is writing a book and is the keeper of the flag at Norwich Senior Housing. Should Fowler become afflicted with a terminal disease, however, she would like the option to take her own life. She abhors of idea of wasting away.

“I am absolutely opposed to spending any portion of my life sitting in a rocking chair, dozing off, waiting for my heart to stop,” she said. “I am not going to sit and wait for death if my cards suggest I should fold.”

Bette Lambert is among the Vermonters who would never consider taking their own lives.

The 58-year-old Randolph Center resident has cared for her mother, father and husband as they struggled with debilitation, disease and the accompanying emotional swings that occur when a family member is facing death. At no point did she discuss suicide as an option for her loved ones. She believes it is wrong and has no tolerance for those who argue that it should be available to patients who do not want to be a burden.

Lambert’s husband, a veteran of the Vietnam War, died of cancer 14 years ago, leaving Lambert to care for their six children, the youngest of whom was just 2 years old.

“I have been thoroughly burdened,” she said. “If you asked me if I’d do it again, what I’d say is, that burden is a sweet one.”

As a patient who once faced “imminent” death, Clara Schoppe has also rejected the notion of suicide as an option for terminally ill people. When she was 42, Schoppe was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and told she had less than a year to live.

At the time, she had three children, the oldest of whom was 8. Her doctors told her there was little hope of survival. That was 24 years ago.

She survived after discovering an experimental treatment that was being offered at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

The treatment could have killed her, she said, but it seemed better than the alternative of dying from her disease. She never once considered suicide.

“I believe that I always have something to offer,” said Schoppe, of St. Johnsbury, Vt. “If it came to the point where I’m suffering, then I want my children to see me suffering well.”

Many opponents have rejected assisted suicide based on religious convictions. Both Schoppe and Lambert are people of faith, but said their opinions would not change if they were non-believers.

“It’s natural law,” Schoppe said. “It’s not religion. This exists in our bones to defend our lives.”

Zina Dana has had plenty of experience with terminally ill patients. The Randolph Center resident had a friend die of liver cancer two years ago. Her 58-year-old aunt, Loney Knipe, is also fighting cancer and currently resides in the Garden Room, a large and homey room at Gifford Medical Center for palliative care patients.

Knipe remains positive about her chances for recovery, Dana said, and the subject of assisted suicide has never come up.

But she does not apply her aunt’s situation to other cases in which a patient is suffering and the odds of survival are small.

“My feelings about it is that it is totally a person’s choice,” Dana said. “The circumstances are different for everybody. It’s crazy people don’t have that choice.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

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Several months before she died, Joe Benning’s mother asked him to make a promise. “My mother extracted a promise from me that the state would not step in to sanction suicide,” said Benning, a Republican state senator from Lyndon, Vt. He agreed to her request, not knowing that a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide would be proposed a year and …