Vermont Assisted Death Bill Passes Key State Senate Vote

Montpelier — A bill that would allow Vermont residents to hasten their deaths by self-administering medicine if they faced a terminal illness and have less than six months to live survived a pivotal test in the Senate yesterday.

After six and half hours of debate on the “End of Life” bill, senators voted 17-13 in favor of taking a second vote on it — a strong indicator that they will pass the legislation on Thursday.

All four senators who had been on the fence in the days leading up to the debate voted to keep the legislation alive. If the bill makes it out of the Senate, it is expected to pass in the House, and Gov. Peter Shumlin strongly supports it.

The bill took a circuitous route to the Senate floor — it originated in the Health and Welfare Committee, which approved it 5-0, and then was sent to the Judiciary Committee, which voted 3-1 against it.

Ordinarily the bill would have languished there, but because of an agreement made over the summer between the Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell and the chairs of the Judiciary and Health and Welfare Committees, it proceeded to the floor for debate despite not having the Judiciary Committee’s blessing.

The majority voted yesterday to reject the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that the bill be tabled. This clears the way for a second vote, to be held today, and a third vote, scheduled for tomorrow. Proposed amendments to the bill can be made up until the third vote.

On the floor, the bill withstood hours of oral scrutiny and was robustly defended by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, chair of the Health and Welfare Committee. The discussion meandered across several fieldsv —medical, legal, philosophical. One minute, it dwelt on marginal legal nuances, and in the next it plunged into deeper emotional territory, with senators recalling the manner in which loved ones had died.

Ayer, a longtime proponent of the bill, described it as “a safe legal harbor for mentally competent terminally ill patients wanting to control the timing and the manner of their death.” She concluded her remarks by calling on the Senate to allow “those very few who choose it to write the last pages of their lives.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a staunch opponent of the legislation, took the reins after Ayer, and said his committee “sees a bill with serious flaws, sees a bill with problems, and sees a bill that leaves us with a number of questions.”

“This has tremendous room for abuse, that’s my concern, that’s why I’m opposed,” Sears said.

More than a dozen other senators also had their say, and Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell was among them, speaking out against the bill. “This is not a bill about pain and suffering. You don’t have to be in pain, you don’t have to suffer. You could have received your diagnosis, what 15 days ago… and you can take this medication and kill yourself,” Campbell said.

Leaning heavily on statistics from Oregon, which has had a very similar law on the books for 15 years, Ayer methodically addressed the torrent of concerns that came from Sears, Campbell, and other senators.

These included the following:

■ Unpleasant side-effects of the lethal prescription.

■ People may be coerced into taking the lethal medicine.

■ A doctor’s prognosis is not infallible.

■ People may be more inclined to reject treatment if they have this option.

■ The bill does not require that the person’s primary care doctor be notified nor does it require a specialist in palliative care to be consulted.

■ Physicians would be participating in the patient’s death.