Today marks one year since Doctor-Prescribed Suicide has been legalized in VT. Despite the best attempts of Compassion and Choices, no one in Vermont has used the lethal dose yet. But the law is as dangerous today as when it was signed, and we need to repeal this law. Other Vermont groups have issued press releases today, and you’ll find those below.
One Year Later
On May 20, 2014, twelve full months after enactment of Act 39, no one in Vermont has used the law to end their own life, despite claims from proponents that such a law was necessary. While two prescriptions were written, both patients died naturally without ingesting the lethal dose.
The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare (VAEH) was organized in 1998 with a dual purpose: 1) to oppose passage of any law that would legalize assisted suicide, and 2) promote excellent palliative care for Vermonters. In concert with Vermont’s leading disability rights organizations and others, we were successful in those endeavors until late in the 2013 legislative session. While access to excellent palliative care has increased, physician assisted suicide also is now legal in Vermont.
After months of contentious debate and 19 roll call votes, the Vermont House and Senate passed what is now Act 39, by just a handful of votes. It is generally understood that well-funded, out-of-state forces were the driving factor behind the close margin of victory. In 2013, VAEH polling found that over 60% of Vermonters did not believe that physician-assisted suicide should be a legislative priority, and the poll also found that support for an Oregon-style law fell to only one-third of the voters once details of the law were made clear. Act 39 stripped away many protections found in the Oregon-style law that proponents argued were essential to good legislation.
“Promoters of assisted suicide assured legislators that such a law would be about patient choice, yet the out-of-state organization, Compassion and Choices (formerly known as the Hemlock Society) has hired a state director,” stated Edward Mahoney, President of VAEH
“If ACT 39 is really desired by Vermonters, and all about patient choice, why would the out-of-state organization Compassion and Choices need to encourage Vermonters to use the law? Why would they need to hire Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson to help promote the law at conferences, health fairs and other venues around the state?” added Mahoney.
In addition to hiring a sitting legislator, Compassion and Choices granted money to the Vermont Ethics Network (VEN) (a non-partisan educational organization) to promote use of the law in Vermont. Diana Barnard, MD, who testified in favor of assisted suicide and VEN’s Executive Director, Cindy Bruzzeze are traveling the state speaking to a variety of health care providers and ethics committees.
“I attended the talk given by Cindy Bruzzese at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital on March 24th,” stated Lynne Caulfield, RN, “and though it was billed as an informational evening, two things became quickly obvious. First, the real goal of the evening was to help people become comfortable with Act 39 and to encourage participation. Second, the uncomfortable responses to questions from the audience left little doubt that even proponents of this hastily crafted law realize it is full of dangerous implications for the user, and offers no protection for most healthcare providers.”
VAEH has also shared information with neighboring states considering a similar law. Physician-assisted suicide legislation failed this year in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
True Dignity VT:
A year ago today, at the bill signing party for Act 39 held in the Governor’s ceremonial office, True Dignity Vermont launched a hotline and email address for individuals who suspect that a patient was being unduly influenced to request or ingest lethal drugs, or were being given such drugs against their will. That number is 1-855-787-5455 or 1-855-STP-KILL, and [email protected]
“We expanded our educational role to become a place where our network of health care providers and other supporters would have a place to take their concerns,” stated True Dignity spokesperson, Carolyn McMurray of Bennington. “The most alarming reports we have received to date involve two separate clinical psychologists, dealing with two different patients, both of whom had suicidal tendencies. In each case, the patients revealed their belief that suicide was more ‘acceptable’ now that the legislature had passed this law.”
Shortly after Act 39 went into effect, True Dignity Vermont received a call from a woman convinced that a health care facility was intentionally withholding treatment from her elderly mother. TDVT recommended that she contact the appropriate experts for further investigation.
Nearly six weeks ago, True Dignity Vermont received a call from an 85 year-old Korean War veteran from New Jersey who wanted information about how he could come here and get a “shot” to end his life. During the conversation, he revealed that he was not terminally-ill, nor physically ill in anyway. He said he was depressed, and he said the suffering of depression was terrible. The man believed, with all his heart, that the new law meant that he could come to Vermont and a physician would end his life. True Dignity Representative told him we did not want him to commit suicide and talked to him for as long as he wanted to talk. He said it helped him a lot to talk. The representative told him to get professional help and invited him to call back to talk whenever he wished. He has not called back.
In addition, reports of confusion about Act 39 have reached True Dignity Vermont including; ambiguous legal language about what the law means, what is legal and what is not. Hospital ethics boards have spent hours of time trying to understand the law and fathom the confusing language. Lawyers for health care institutions have also found that the law is “unclear” and ambivalent, leading to dozens of unanswerable questions. Nearly all hospitals have “opted-out” of the law and most health care facilities have followed suit.
True Dignity Vermont board members attended a conference sponsored by the Vermont Ethics Network in October entitled “Vermont’s New Normal: End of Life Care and Physician Aid in Dying” where, even in a setting designed to promote the law, many of Act 39’s flaws were obvious to attendees and supporters.
True Dignity Vermont will continue to educate about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide and remind Vermonters to report any concerns.