Vermont Legislative Council Releases One-Sided Report on Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 14, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Vermont Legislative Council Releases One-Sided Report on Assisted Suicide Email this article
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by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
December 14, 2004

Montpelier, VT ( — When the Vermont legislature convenes again in January, advocates of assisted suicide hope that it will pass legislation legalizing the practice.

Since last year’s public debates on the issue, the Legislative Council has released its report on assisted suicide in Oregon, requested by last year’s legislature, and the Vermont Medical Society which opposed a law legalizing assisted suicide has a new president.

While the issue of assisted suicide was not even debated in the Vermont legislature last year, polls, debates, and media coverage kept the issue in the public eye.

Advocates promised to renew their push for legalization in 2005, and legislators, expecting the issue to come up again, asked the Legislative Council to research the effect of Oregon’s assisted suicide law.

Dr. Robert Orr, president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, expressed concerns about the Council’s report.

The most glaring problem with the investigation, which researchers claim was objective, is that no Oregonians opposed to assisted suicide were interviewed, while the opinions of many advocates of the practice were included.

"They dismissed our concern about under-reporting of PAS in Oregon by merely saying ‘there is no objective evidence of under-reporting,’" added Orr.

"Even the Oregon Department of Health, charged with giving annual reports on the facts, says in 2 of its recent annual reports ‘it is difficult or impossible to detect or comment on under-reporting,’" Orr explained. "It should be recalled that in the Netherlands, there were suspicions of under-reporting of PAS and euthanasia for several years until the government did a formal study and found that only a small minority of cases were being reported."

Orr also noted that the report does not deal with news reports of abuses, including patients with depression or dementia being given lethal prescriptions and physicians and families helping patients ingest the deadly substance.

"The report dismissed concerns about the ‘slippery slope" experience in the Netherlands," continued Orr. "They [researchers] did not mention that Dutch courts have refused to convict physicians who have given lethal injections to non-fatally ill individuals; or that the policy was amended to allow adolescents to request and receive lethal prescriptions or injections; or
that hospitals have developed policies for the lethal injection of severely handicapped newborns — all of clearly beyond the original policy."

Such a slippery slope is worsening in the Netherlands.

Orr cites a proposal in the Netherlands to extend the use of assisted suicide to those "without free will," including children, retarded adults, and individuals in coma. In fact, the report of the Vermont Legislative Council failed to mention concerns of disabilities rights groups about assisted suicide and its abuses.

"The Report spends considerable time and text assessing whether end-of-life care in Oregon has improved since legalization of physician-assisted suicide," said Orr.

The report claims, "It is quite apparent from credible sources in and out of Oregon that the Death With Dignity Act has not had an adverse impact on end-of-life care and in all probability has enhanced the other options."

"They did not mention the FACT that family reports of patients dying in pain or distress has increased by over 50% since the law was enacted (from 30.8% in 1997 to 48% in 2002), a serious indictment based on one of the best measures of quality of end-of-life care," rebutted Orr, citing an article from the Journal of Palliative Medicine entitled, "Increased family reports of pain and distress in dying Oregonians: 1996 to 2002."

Orr stressed the negative impact the report could have, since legislators do not have time to conduct their own investigations but rely on the Legislative Council to look into issues for them.

Another change in Vermont since last year’s passionate debate is the election of the Vermont Medical Society’s new president, Dr. Harvey Reich. Reich has not detailed his position on the assisted suicide issue.

"I’m not saying it was a bad intention, but it’s hard to legislate medicine," Reich told the Times-Argus when asked about the assisted suicide legislation. "All of the cases are very individual and very specialized. If you start getting non-medical people involved who don’t understand the idiosyncrasies you may end up with a bad law. People are really wrestling with what the right thing to do is."

Last year, the Vermont Medical Society voted to oppose any law legalizing or banning assisted suicide.

The group’s former president, Dr. Lloyd Thompson, was reprimanded for ending the life of an 85-year-old patient without her consent or that of her family.

Governor Jim Douglas has made it clear he does not support legalizing assisted suicide, 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.

Such opposition, combined with pressure from disabilities rights groups and the lack of support from the Vermont Medical Society are all credited for the failure of assisted suicide advocates from succeeding last legislative session.

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 –
Vermont Legislative Council’s Report on Oregon’s assisted suicide law: