No one expected discussion of a right-to-die bill to last more than a few minutes in the Vermont Senate on Thursday. On her way into the chamber, Amy Shollenberger, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont, quipped, "Don't blink, or you'll miss it."
Even so, sticker-wearing supporters and opponents of the legislation packed the chamber to see the full Senate debate the issue for the first time.
In the end, they got a debate — but no up-or-down vote.
The Vermont Senate went into session ostensibly to tackle a procedural question: Could legislation that would give terminally ill Vermonters the right to end their lives with a fatal dose of medication be added to a bill regulating tanning salons?
Proponents of an Oregon-style "death with dignity" law attached the language to the tanning bill in committee this week in a last-ditch attempt to pass it this session. But whether it survived to get a floor vote depended on whether it was deemed germane to tanning salons.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who presides over the Senate, ruled that it wasn't. The senators could have overruled him if three quarters of them disagreed. Instead, they voted to sustain his decision — but not before the procedural question morphed into an emotional, two-hour debate on the merits of "death with dignity," which opponents call "doctor-assisted suicide." Senators also traded some testy remarks about the unusual way the bill ended up on the floor in the first place.
Going into the session, it was unclear how much debate Senate leaders would allow on the merits of a right-to-die bill. The House has twice debated the legislation in recent years — rejecting it both times — but it hasn't come before the full Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee took a single day of testimony on the bill on March 15 and had scheduled a vote on it for the next day. The committee was expected to reject the bill 3-2 but the night before the vote, Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) was hospitalized after a fall and the committee was deadlocked 2-2. So the committee chairman, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), cancelled the vote and the bill effectively stalled.
Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden), a longtime proponent of a right-to-die law who is not seeking re-election this year, found another way to move the bill before she retires. In the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Miller attached it to the tanning bed bill. The committee approved that 3-2.
So it fell to Miller (pictured in top photo with Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell) to defend the coupling of the two bills on the floor. Under questioning from Sears, Miller appeared unprepared and flat-footed, unable to rebut Sears' claims that enacting doctor-assisted death in Vermont could subject doctors to prosecution and lead to increased teen suicide rates.
Sears put Miller on the spot. "I would appreciate if the senator could explain the rule of double-effect," he said.
"Mr. President, I cannot answer that question but would be happy to get it," Miller replied.
The rule of double-effect, Sears explained, is "a well-established rule that permits the provision of medication to patients at the end of life to ensure comfort, even if the treatment unintentionally hastens death." It went on like that for two more questions before Miller asked for a recess.
Sears said Milers' lack of answers demonstrated why the subject wasn't ripe for debate and vote; it needs more testimony and consideration.
He also said that skirting the Judiciary Committee to get the bill to the floor was an improper breach of the rules, something that came up repeatedly during the debate.
"To hijack a bill out of committee is breaking the rules," Sears said, "and if we want to conitnue to break the rules in this building, there will be consequences for all of us."
Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), the chair of Senate Health and Welfare, fired back. "I've been in the Senate for 10 years and for 10 years we've had a bill addressing death with dignity. And for 10 years it has stayed in committee where it had no hope of getting out. The majority of Vermonters for 10 years have been in favor. Whether the vote is up or down is almost irrelevant. We should at least have the discussion."
Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) agreed, comparing the right-to-die bill to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he said stayed "bottled up" in congressional committees for years because the chairmen at the time opposed it. When the rules hold up key issues, Galbraith said, "it is imperative to adopt a different procedure." Galbraith said the right-to-die is a "very close call" for him and he would not reveal his position on the issue. But, he said, "I think the people are entitled to a decision on this bill."
Many senators implored colleagues to "stand up for process" — i.e. respect the committee system and not find back-door ways to get bills to the floor when the committees failed to pass them. Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), who voted against attaching right-to-die to the tanning bill in committee, said on the floor that the health and welfare committee didn't even discuss the bill before voting on it. "I wasn't even given the opportunity to fully read the amendment," he said. "There was no testimony, not a single witness. Maybe this is the best possible legislation on this issue. I, for one, don't know. But I do know the process has been subverted."
Sen. Robert Hartwell (D-Bennington) echoed Mullin — and warned colleagues not to interpret his vote against suspending the rules as a sign that he opposes death with dignity. He called the maneuver "highly inappropriate" and repeated Sears' claim that the bill had been "hijacked."
Campbell, the senate president, warned that if the Senate allowed debate and a vote on the bill, then the process would be "forever broken."
"We're not voting on whether or not we support death with dignity or physician-assisted suicide," Campbell told colleagues. "We're voting on whether or not we are going to follow the rules of this Senate."
Miller responded, "There's something bigger than process here. It's about compassion and it's about choice. Personal choice. I'm a mother. As much as rules are made to follow, there are certain situations where rules are made to be broken. I would ask my colleagues to think of something bigger than the rules right now."
Supporters of the right-to-die legislation needed 23 votes to overrule Lt. Gov. Scott. When the senators finally called the roll, the vote came out 11 in favor of allowing the right-to-die legislation to attach to the tanning bed bill, and 18 against. Senators in favor were: Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden), Claire Ayer (D-Addison), Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), Sara Kittell (D-Franklin), Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), Mark McDonald (D-Orange), Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden), Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) and Jeanette White (D-Windham).
Senators voting against were: Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), Randy Brock (R-Franklin), John Campbell (D-Windsor), Bill Carris (D-Rutland), Ann Cummings (D-Washington), Bill Doyle (R-Washington), Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Harold Giard (D-Addison), Robert Hartwell (D-Bennington), Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), Jane Kitchell (D-Caledonia), Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), Dick Sears (D-Bennington), Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Richard Westman (R-Lamoille). Sally Fox (D-Chittenden) was absent.
Afterward, some senators were still steaming about the way the debate went down. Sears called it "ludicrous at best" for Galbraith to compare this vote to the Civil Rights Act.
"I think Senator Galbraith's comments were totally out of line and what you'd expect from a freshman senator," Sears said.
Photo credits: Andy Bromage