Vermont Medical Leaders Debate Legalizing Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 5, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Medical Leaders Debate Legalizing Assisted Suicide

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
October 5, 2003

Rutland, VT ( — A grave and serious drama unfolded at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland, Vermont on Tuesday. Instead of a theatrical performance, medical experts debated the "to be or not to be" question for real — whether or not Vermont should be the second state to legalize assisted suicide.

Unlike Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy pondering a single suicide, the panel of four experts discussed the future of thousands of Vermonters in a debate about the pending legislation entitled "Ethical Issues and End of Life Decisions," sponsored by the Rutland Regional Medical Center.

"Compassion does not mean, ‘here let me help you die,’" Dr. Robert Orr of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care told the 350 attendees. "Compassion means ‘to suffer with’ … ‘Let me help you, let me give you life with dignity.’"

"We should re-double our efforts to provide excellent end-of-life care," Orr said. "Let’s really work hard to come along side these people and help them."

Orr also mentioned the faults with the Death With Dignity Act, including a safeguard that requires a patient to be terminally ill and within six months of death.

"The art of prognosis is inexact," he said. "[And] It’s also not always easy to determine someone’s competence."

"It is patient initiated and patient driven at every stage," argued Dr. Theodore Shattuck, former member of the Rutland Medical Center’s ethics committee and one of two representatives from End of Life Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, at the debate.

Shattuck said the Vermont legislation was modeled point-for-point with the Oregon law, under which 126 physician-assisted suicides have taken place in five years.

The other End of Life Choices representative, Richard McCormack, stated that the term "physician-assisted suicide" was a misnomer because he says "the choice properly belongs with the patient."

"Ultimately, it becomes a matter of simple compassion," said the former Windsor County Senator.

Allan Eisemann, chairman of the Rutland Regional Medical Center’s ethics committee and medical director of its cancer center, said more funding and training was needed for real end of life care.

"Care of dying people is hard work. It’s some of the hardest work that can be done," Eisemann said, adding, "I’ve never had a patient ask for assistance in dying."

The Vermont Medical Society will convene on October 17-18, and they are likely to discuss the upcoming legislation as well. The group is unsure whether it will support, oppose, or remain neutral on the Death with Dignity Act. The group’s former president, Dr. Lloyd Thompson, was recently reprimanded for ending the life of an 85-year-old patient without her consent or that of her family.

A Death with Dignity bill failed in the Vermont legislature this year, but pro-euthanasia groups, such as End of Life Choices, as the Hemlock Society is now called, are pushing for its consideration next year.

Governor Jim Douglas has made it clear he does not support the legislation, and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee stated he does not want to take up such a controversial issue if it’s not likely to become law.