Vermont Medical Society Could Help or Hinder Assisted Suicide Bill

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 3, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Medical Society Could Help or Hinder Assisted Suicide Bill

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
October 3, 2003

Montpelier, VT ( — The Vermont Medical Society will meet Oct. 17-18 and will discuss whether or not they will defend the doctor’s role as healer, or betray thousands of years of tradition. The state is at a legislative crossroads regarding physician-assisted suicide, and all eyes are on the VMS.

The meeting will certainly be of interest to Vermont legislators, who are currently considering three bills in committees, one banning physician-assisted suicide, one legalizing it (similar to Oregon’s law), and one creating an advisory commission on palliative care and pain management.

It is unclear what position the VMS will take up. In fact, neutrality is being considered as an option.

"We want to avoid significant division within the medical society," said Dr. Carmer Van Buren, MD, a retired internist who submitted the resolution to the society to change its current anti-euthanasia policy. "We’re saying we respect people’s opinion on both sides of the issue, and all we ask is that the medical society take a neutral position and leave the decision up to the physician and their patient."

However, those supporting a ban on physician-assisted suicide would consider the VMS’ neutrality a threat to any attempt to ban the practice.

"Many people believe that the Oregon Medical Association’s ‘neutral’ position was crucial to the vote for assisted suicide," said Nancy Valko, a representative of Nurses for Life. "When a doctors’ group takes a ‘neutral’ position, it sends the message that they really don’t care about the most basic rule of medicine which is not to kill the patient."

Making the practice legal has some doctors concerned about the repercussions.

"Legalization of PAS is fraught with danger for ill, elderly and vulnerable patients," Dr. Robert Orr told "This practice has been expanded from its original intent and abused by ‘bending’ or ignoring the regulations in areas where it has been accepted or legalized."

Recently, the former head of the VMS, Dr. Lloyd Thompson, was recently investigated and reprimanded for administering a lethal dose of Norcuron to an 85-yr old woman without the consent of the patient or her family.

"The ethical alternative is to re-double the traditional efforts of medicine, and of society — to provide excellent physical, social, psychological and spiritual care for individuals with life-threatening disease," concluded Dr. Orr.

Dr. Orr has formed a group of medical professionals, called the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, as an attempt to keep assisted suicide illegal.

Orr, who formed the group with 16 other doctors, has said Vermont has gained a reputation as a pioneer in palliative and hospice care, which provides patients with comfort in the dying process rather than hastening their death. And unlike most other states, Vermont offers these services in every community, he said.

Pro-Life groups will have an uphill battle to prevent Vermont from becoming the second state to allow physician-assisted suicide.

"The State may well see in excess of a million dollars spent here by the Hemlock Society to promote passage of the bill [to legalize PAS]," Mary Beerworth, Director of Vermont Right to Life. "It is urgent that Vermonters call their legislators well in advance of the opening of the 2004 legislative session in January to clearly state their opposition to House Bill 318 and Senate Bill 112."

Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994, with the passage of the Death With Dignity Act.

Howard Dean, the former Governor and a presidential candidate, recently indicated he supports assisted suicide.