Armed with a new poll that says 64 percent of Vermonters support a right-to-die law, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation today that would give terminally ill patients the choice of ending their own lives.
After intense lobbying, the group Patient Choices Vermont secured 43 co-sponsors for H-274, including every House member from Burlington, minus Republican Kurt Wright and Democrat Johannah Leddy Donovan. Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor) is the lead sponsor. The bill was unveiled by Patient Choices Vermont founder Dick Walters (pictured at podium) and other supporters during a Statehouse press conference this morning.
Two things give supporters hope that "death with dignity" will pass this year: Gov. Peter Shumlin supports it (former Gov. Jim Douglas did not); and a new Zogby poll commissioned by Patient Choices Vermont, and released today, shows broad support for the legislation.
The Death With Dignity National Center in Oregon, where the nation's first right-to-die law was passed in 1997, has targeted Vermont as the most likely state for a legislative victory this year. The center's executive director was in Vermont in December to meet with Shumlin and organizers for the effort. Click here for more background.
The Zogby telephone survey was conducted on February 11 and asked 600 likely Vermont voters: "Would you support or oppose legislation to give a mentally competent adult, dying of a terminal disease with a prognosis of less than 6 months to live, the right to request and take medication to peacefully hasten death?" The results: 64 percent support, 26 percent oppose and 10 percent aren't sure.
That's actually lower support for right-to-die legislation than in previous Zogby polls. A 2007 survey showed 82 percent of Vermonters supported the bill. That same year, the House voted down a right-to-die bill 63 to 82.
The survey also asked respondents to react to this statement: "I should be able to make my own choices about what happens to me at the end of my life without the government, doctors, or the church telling me what to do." The results: 68 percent strongly agree, 18 percent somewhat agree, 4 percent somewhat disagree, 8 percent strongly disagree, 3 percent not sure.
Opponents of "physician-assisted suicide" — including the Catholic Church, disability rights groups like the Vermont Center for Independent Living, and medical professionals like Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare — are planning a full-court press to stop the bill. Both the Vermont Center for Independent Living and the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare have started airing television commercials in opposition to the bill (the ad below is one VCIL aired in January).
In the ad, former Vermont lawmaker Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, whose 28-year-old son has cerebral palsy and autism, explains her concerns over a right to die law, saying, "People with disabilities are seen differently...as a potential burden on their families. ...Those are the people who are most at risk of being convinced to let themselves die so they no longer burden somebody else."
As written, the bill would give terminally ill patients with fewer than six months to live the option to request a prescription for medication that would hasten death — ordinarily, an overdose of a barbiturate such as Secobarbital or Pentobarbital. The bill has safeguards meant to prevent abuse. The patient would have to request the medication numerous times and have a witness.
Dr. Joseph Nasca, a Georgia-based pediatrician and interim president of Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, previously told Seven Days the practice would amount to a "transgression of medical" practice." He also took issue with the phrasing of the Zogby poll question, saying, "To me it conjures up this image of a person who's dying in pain and a doctor giving some morphine to alleviate suffering."