Vermont end-of-life bill clears senate hurdle

Posted at: 05/09/2013 10:48 PM
Updated at: 05/10/2013 10:31 AM
By: Dan Levy

Photo: AP

MONTPELIER, Vt. - It could come as soon as this weekend that terminally-ill Vermonters can begin requesting lethal medication from their doctors. On Thursday the Vermont Senate passed a hybrid aid-in-dying bill, which means the lower house will get it next and then on to the governor's desk.

If Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the measure -- as he is expected to do -- Vermont will become just the third state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide. It would also become the first state to do it by legislation. The other states where it's already on the books, Oregon and Washington, got there by voter referendums.

"I understand and sympathize with the desire for people to have a say, to have some control, at the end of their lives," said Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham.

With many spectators looking on, Thursday's Senate vote was 17-13 in favor of the bill.

Like Oregon's law, Vermont would require a patient to get two physicians to diagnose terminal illness -- defined as six months or less to live. The patient would need to be mentally competent, over the age of 18 and able to swallow their own medication. No one else can administer it.

"I don't think it's a benefit for Vermonters," said Sharon Iszak of the Vermont Right to Life Committee. "I don't feel as though the government has any business getting in between a patient and a doctor."

The request for lethal medication must be both verbal and written, and there needs to be two witnesses, one of whom can not be a family member.

Some provisions in the hybrid bill passed by the Senate would expire in three years, leaving opponents fearful that future legislatures could make it even easier for patients to get permission to die.

"I will predict that someone will do that in 2015," opined Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. "And you'll be back to the original bill."

For now, it's up to the lower house to pass the same hybrid version of the bill that made it through the Senate. That's expected to happen, although death-with-dignity supporters aren't claiming victory just yet.

"Cautious optimism," is how Fred Crowley, a supporter of the measure characterizes his feelings. "We will have one more body to go through."

If the bill makes it through the lower house and if it's signed by the governor, it becomes effective immediately.

Assisted-suicide activists are hopeful passage in Vermont re-energizes their movement. This year, eight states have introduced assisted-death bills while two states have introduced bills prohibiting it.

Massachusetts voters rejected the measure 51 percent to 49 percent last November.