Vermont Lawmakers Want Oregon Assisted Suicide Data Reviewed

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 20, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Lawmakers Want Oregon Assisted Suicide Data Reviewed

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
May 20, 2004

Burlington, VT ( — The Vermont legislative research office has been asked by 78 state legislators to investigate the impact of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, and research the arguments for and against the legalization of the practice in Vermont.

"It’s not a normal request and it’s not a normal subject,” said Legislative Council chief Bill Russell, who said requests like this usually come as resolutions. "It’s a letter from 78 members asking us to research a situation in a state 3,000 miles away. But I presume we’ll do it — if 78 members want us to do some research, we’ll try to do it."

Though legislation designed to legalize assisted suicide in the New England state didn’t make it through the state legislature, the request is seen as a first step in a second effort.

The letter, written by Rep. William Aswad (D-Burlington) asks for researchers to "consult with all interested parties in Vermont and catalogue the areas of factual disputes." It asks that the research office not include any policy recommendations in its results.

"We just want people to understand there is a bill that passed in Oregon; that we have a similar bill; and based on the Oregon experience it’s the right thing for Vermont to do," Aswad said.

However, at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association earlier this month a doctor described a recent case in Oregon in which guidelines were not followed, and a patient who was not terminally ill received a prescription for a lethal overdose of medication from his doctor, despite the fact that the doctor said he was not competent enough to make major medical decisions.

The Oregon law passed in 1994 requires that the patient be terminally ill and that two doctors agree that they have six months or less to live, and that they be deemed mentally competent to make their decision.

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

Several different organizations banded together to oppose the assisted suicide proposal.

The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, was joined by several groups, including the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, the Vermont Right to Life Committee, Burlington’s Catholic Diocese, and, most recently, the Vermont Chapter of the American Cancer Society and the Hospice and Palliative Care Council of Vermont.

The Vermont Chapter of the American Cancer Society issued a statement that it "opposes all measures that would permit assisted suicide" because "it violates one of the most basic tenets of physician practice: Do no harm."

The Hospice and Palliative Care Council of Vermont has also stated recently that it opposes "any legislation either for or against physician assisted suicide," similar to the position of the Vermont Medical Association.

Their official position statement strongly supports improving palliative care, pain management for patients.

Some members of the pro-life community believe 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.

Pro-life advocates remain on guard and watchful of any attempts to resurrect the pro-euthanasia effort.

"I’m not convinced we are out of danger," said Mary Beerworth, Executive Director of Vermont Right to Life Committee. "The forces and money behind the bill are determined to pass it."

Beerworth cautioned that there may be a "bigger battle" in next year’s legislative session. "The pro-life community will need to remain vigilant," she concluded.

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