Vermont Docs Don’t Favor Assisted Suicide Bill, Take Neutral Stance

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 14, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Docs Take Neutral Stance on Assisted Suicide Bill

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
November 14, 2003

Montpelier, VT ( — The Vermont Medical Society (VMS), after polling its members, has finally released the results and decided not to support legislation allowing assisted suicide, and to maintain a neutral stance on the end of life debate — including whether or not to legalize assisted suicide in Vermont.

The vote, which has produced confusion on both sides of the debate, has the VMS favoring no law on assisted suicide either banning or allowing the practice and has the medical group taking no position on the issue of assisted suicide itself.

The results have been anticipated by many groups, including the state legislature, which may consider a bill to legalize assisted suicide modeled after Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law in their next legislative session.

"I think it’s very clear that most doctors in Vermont don’t want any laws written for end of life care," said Society President Dr. David O’Brien, a cardiologist. "Any legislation, either for or against might interfere [with the doctor-patient relationship]."

Dr. O’Brien called the results “confusing” and said society officials are planning a meeting in the next few weeks to determine a course of action.

The first resolution, to alter the VMS’s existing policy to state that no laws should govern assisted suicide, passed by a mail-in vote of 522 to 175. The second resolution, for the society to take a neutral stance on the issue, passed by a vote of 348 to 340.

The society opted in their annual meeting earlier this month to poll all of its members by mail, in order to get the input of the organization as a whole.

Groups interested in the vote are reacting differently to the outcome.

“The VMS vote was a victory for those of us who are fighting well-organized
and well-financed attempts to legalize assisted suicide in Vermont,” Mary Beerworth, Executive Director of Vermont Right to Life told “A clear majority of VMS members voted in favor of language that clearly opposes the legalization of assisted suicide.”

Beerworth was concerned doctors would vote to endorse the pro-assisted suicide bill.

"We think it demonstrates that doctors are divided," said Dr. Charles Gluck, one of the four physicians who sponsored the second resolution. "Doctors are not neutral. They are either very pro or very con."

Dr. Richard Austin, a director of the pro-suicide Vermont Death with Dignity, also sponsored the second resolution. He agreed with Dr. Gluck in stating that the VMS’ neutral position would allow the debate on assisted suicide to continue.

Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted suicide in 1994.

Dr. Kenneth Stevens and Dr. William Petty of Portland Oregon are visiting Vermont to help oppose the assisted-suicide legislation, and have participated in local events Wednesday and Thursday night to help raise awareness of the effects Oregon’s version of the law has had in their state.

VMS’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.

Pro-life groups were disappointed that he did not receive a more severe punishment.

“The VMS vote sent an excellent signal to the public that the medical community is not in favor of the bill and I believe that legislators will take that message very seriously when considering the measure,” said Beerworth.

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.

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