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"Death With Dignity" Bill on Life Support

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A right-to-die bill was near death in Montpelier on Friday after failing to make it out of committee by the mid-session "crossover" deadline.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to vote on the contentious "death with dignity" bill Friday morning following an emotional three-hour hearing on Wednesday. But the vote was cancelled because one of the committee members, state Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), was hospitalized last night after falling six feet off a staircase at an apartment she rents with two other lawmakers.

Nitka's absence didn't change the bill's fate: she was opposed, as were two other members of the five-member Judiciary Committee. A 2-2 tie would have effectively killed the bill in committee.

But committee chairman Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington, pictured), who opposes the bill, felt it wouldn't be right to vote on the legislation without Nitka present. Sears held firm despite pressure from Gov. Peter Shumlin, a backer of "death with dignity," to vote the bill out of committee with an "adverse" recommendation so that the full Senate could debate it. Sears conferred with Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and determined that was the "wrong thing to do."

Backers of the bill said they are prepared to fight for the vote on the Senate floor this year, but the prospects for that happening appeared uncertain.

"We continue to see a path to passage this year," said Dick Walters, a Shelburne retiree who is president of Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont, the main group behind S.103. "The Senate vote is too close to call. If the issue gets an unobstructed vote on the floor there is a real chance it could pass."

Friday was "crossover" at the Statehouse, the deadline by which bills must be passed out of committee to be considered this session. The right-to-die bill, called "doctor-assisted suicide" by opponents, failed to survive crossover. But there are still at least two ways the bill could get to a floor vote.

First, the Senate Rules Committee could extend the crossover deadline for the bill. But given the makeup of the Rules Committee — all five members oppose the bill — that would appear unlikely. A second way is for a senator to attach death with dignity to another bill on the Senate floor — but only if that bill was germain to death with dignity. In other words, it couldn't be attached to a bill about waste water permits.

Sears said he wouldn't be surprised to see that happen this year but believes the votes aren't there to pass it in the full, 30-member Senate.

"There are 16 people solidly against, 12 in favor and two undecideds — and I'm not even sure who they are," Sears said.

George Eighmey, a former Oregon lawmaker who was an architect of that state's 14-year-old right-to-die law, was flown to Vermont for the week by Patient Choices Vermont to testify at Wednesday's hearing. Though the bill appeared doomed from the outset, Eighmey said supporters moved the ball forward this year in a significant way.

Comparing it to fights for same-sex marriage that took more than a decade in some states, Eighmey said, "Facts and persistence pay off eventually."

Photo credit: Andy Bromage

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