Since it was introduced last year, a bill that would give terminally-ill Vermonters the right to voluntarily end their own lives has gone nowhere. "An Act Relating to Patient Choice and Control at End of Life" — bill number S. 103 — was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and, despite vigorous lobbying from supporters, had not gotten a hearing.
Next week, it finally will.
State Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) told Seven Days today the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, will review the bill on Tuesday, March 13 and take three hours of testimony on Wednesday, March 14, to hear from the main groups for and against the legislation.
Sears (pictured) cautioned that there's no guarantee it will be voted on — either by the committee or by the full Senate. Even if it is, Sears doesn't believe the legislation has the votes to pass in either venue.
So why take it up?
"Part of the reason for doing this hearing is I'm meeting right now with a group of constituents at an independent living facility tomorrow here in Bennington," Sears said. "And they've asked me to better understand their side and I want to understand the other side as well. It's highly controversial and it's highly emotional and I'm sure there will be emotional testimony on both sides."
Two senators on the Judiciary Committee — Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) and Jeanette White (D-Windham) — are co-sponsors of the bill. Sears himself opposes what supporters call "death with dignity" and opponents call "physician assisted suicide." Senate President John Campbell (D-Windsor), a practicing Catholic, opposes the bill as well, but has said he wouldn't stand in the way of it coming to a vote.
The Senate's deadline for passing bills this session — referred to as crossover — comes at the end of next week, though Sears said someone could attach right-to-die legislation to another House or Senate bill before the biennium ends this spring.
Modeled after Oregon's right-to-die law, the Vermont legislation would allow mentally competent adults with a terminal illness to request a fatal dose of medication. Opponents have called it a "transgression of medical practice." A group called True Dignity Vermont has posted an action alert on its website urging members to write or call their senators expressing opposition to the bill in advance of next week's hearing.
Sears told Vermont Public Radio in January that it was "pointless" to take up a bill that didn't have the votes to pass.
What changed his mind?
"I wouldn't call it changing my mind," Sears said. "I may have said I didn't want to hold a hearing, or I wasn't going to do it, but I wouldnt call it changing my mind. I would call it looking at the issue. Frequently, committees hold hearings on issues just to understand them a little better."
The witness list for next week's hearing is stil in flux. Sears said he invited Ed Paquin from the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights and a representative of the bill's main proponents, Patient Choices Vermont. If the bill moved any further, Sears said he would "certainly" hold public hearings, "try to provide more opportunity for the public to testify — general members of the public."
Lobbyist Adam Necrason, a spokesman for Patient Choices Vermont, said the group is "excited" the committee will hear testimony on the legislation.
"Once the facts come in through the hearing process, hopefully it will be clear that the strong majority of Vermonters' view this as a personal liberty issue," Necrason said. "We hope lawmakers will be swayed by the facts proven by the law's extensive track record in Oregon, not the fears portrayed by some opponents."
Proponents have tried for years to pass the bill, and at significant expense. The closest they came was in 2007, when the bill reached a vote in the House but was put down, 63 to 82. That year Patient Choices Vermont ended up spending $120,000 to promote its position, while the main opposition group, Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, spent $43,000 on paid advertising and lobbying, according to tax filings.
"The Vermont dialogue is very mature on this, and the isuse is ripe and ready for action," Necrason said.
If Patient Choices Vermont is discouraged by Sears' gloomy predictions for the bill's prospects, Necrason isn't letting on.
"We see a path to passage," he said. "We think the vote is close and the facts matter, and they come out through the legislative process."
Photo credit: Andy Bromage