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Why Vermont Matters: “Patient Choices Vermont” and Doctor Prescribed Death

by | Oct 15, 2011

By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

While physician assisted suicide remains illegal across nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, those who tirelessly promote doctor prescribed death are on a all-out blitz in New England.   There is a current effort under way in Massachusetts to obtain 70,000 signatures of registered voters before the petition can be presented to the legislature, where lawmakers could either adopt it as a law or let voters decide in the November 2012 general election. 

The other major effort is in Vermont.  A bill died last year in the legislature, but will be introduced in the next legislative session with aggressive support from Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin(D). 

Assisted suicide is currently legal in only two states– Oregon and Washington–and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, due to a 2010 court decision.  So what could happen next if two New England states were to join them? The more states that adopt these dangerous laws, the greater the risk of other states leaving vulnerable populations unprotected. 

In Vermont, the coalition promoting doctor prescribed death, called “Patient Choices Vermont,” touts on its website the success of the Oregon Law which the Vermont law replicates. The coalition sells so-called “safeguards” and writes things such as “Every patient who has used the Oregon law has had some form of health insurance; In Oregon, no disabled person has used the Death With Dignity Act unless they were terminally ill; Most of the patients using the Oregon law had a college education; The median age of patients using the Oregon law was mid- to late 60’s.”  It is trying to claim that the poor and those with disabilities are not being abused.

Note what the pro-doctor prescribed death lobby leaves off of its website.  We don’t know if the people who died by assisted suicide were competent, or if they had diagnosable depression.  The website neglects to mention that not one person has requested suicide because he or she was in pain (studies show the predominate motive is fear of becoming a burden).   The website neglects to mention that no one legally has to witness the death and verify it was really voluntary.  The list could go on and on.

Unless these statistics are examined, and the facade of “safeguards” more aggressively disproved, it becomes difficult for states to fight an organized, well-funded assisted suicide lobby. 

More on the how the safeguards are an illusion is available here: www.nrlc.org/medethics/What%20We%20have%20Learned%20from%20Oregon.pdf.

Beyond states being vulnerable to the argument that “these assisted suicide laws work,” there is also a larger legal concern. 

In a 1997 pro-life victory, the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected the notion that there was a constitutional “right” to assisted suicide.  However, there was one troubling footnote from Justice Stevens. Stevens  said that he did not intend to “foreclose the possibility that an individual plaintiff seeking to hasten her death, or a doctor whose assistance was sought, could prevail in a more particularized challenge.” 

In addition to this open-ended invitation to bring a case in the future, the High Court has also indicated that it likes to look at trends.  In the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case (an unrelated juvenile death penalty case) the Court wrote, “It is not so much the number of these States that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of the change.”

So while Vermont and Massachusetts may seem isolated, if they were to join the ranks of Oregon and Washington, and perhaps a few more New England States next year, there is the real risk that the Supreme Court might reconsider whether there is a federal Constitutional right to assisted suicide.  And that would leave us all at risk.

Categories: Assisted Suicide