Vermont Legislature Holds Hearing on End-of-Life Palliative Care

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 2, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Legislature Holds Hearing on End-of-Life Palliative Care

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
March 2, 2004

Montpelier, VT ( — Vermont residents crowded into the statehouse to listen to and participate in a joint hearing of the Health and Welfare Committees on end-of-life care. Although legislative leaders said a bill to legalize assisted suicide will not be taken up this session, proponents and opponents of the grisly practice voiced their opinions.

The committee leaders introduced two speakers, Dr. Ira Byock, Director of Palliative Care at Dartmough-Hitchcock and Dr. Robert Orr, Director of Ethics at Fletcher Allen. Both were instructed not to mention assisted suicide, but to focus on their views on how to improve hospice and palliative care.

Over 90 people signed up to speak, so names were drawn. A majority, 19, spoke in opposition to assisted suicide, and 12 spoke in favor of it. Four of the speakers remained neutral, and focused on the hearing’s subject of improving palliative care.

Despite the position of the majority of the speakers, Dr. Orr believes there were far more attendees wearing green lapel stickers saying "2 out of 3," in reference to assisted suicide advocates’ claim that 68% of Vermonters support the practice, than those wearing the yellow "Life" stickers.

"To me, its a question of my right to my life," said Sally Shober, an advocate of the Death with Dignity Act to legalize the deadly practice. "No doctor should be hauled off to jail because he or she helped a patient by providing means of hastening death."

"How can we legislate a cheap way to end life at a time when the treatment disparities available to the rich and the poor are widening," asked Deborah Lisi-Baker. "And when pain medication and hospice care are under funded and not always available?"

Meanwhile, younger Americans may be increasingly taking the pro-life side in the ethical debate.

"Two or three of the most effective speakers in opposition to physician-assisted suicide were quite young — that gives one increased faith in the younger generation," commented Dr. Orr. "It turned out to be a very positive event for those who oppose physician-assisted suicide."

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas (R) 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.

That means legislators may focus on a bill to help treat patients with severe pain who may request an assisted suicide if legal.

Meanwhile, the Vermont Organization of Nurse Leaders has joined a growing list of groups that oppose the assisted suicide legislation, including The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, the Vermont Right to Life Committee, Burlington’s Catholic Diocese, the Vermont Chapter of the American Cancer Society, and the Hospice and Palliative Care Council of Vermont.

It is believed by some members of the pro-life community that the opposition to assisted suicide from disability groups, such as the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, and the Vermont Center for Independent Living have been instrumental in the defeat of euthanasia advocates in Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, and for the time being, Vermont.

Regardless of the fate of the legislation for now, proponents of a bill to legalize assisted suicide are putting staff and money behind their effort to legalize it in the future.

According to Dr. Orr, Derek Humphrey, formerly of End of Life Choices, said that the pro-euthanasia organization pays $21,000 per month to 2 professional political advisors to further their cause, although he bemoans that "it hasn’t got them anywhere yet."

Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted suicide in 1994, and the proposed Vermont legislation was modeled after the Oregon law.

Related web sites:
Vermont Right to Life –
Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care –