Editorial: Choosing to die with dignity

In the controversial and highly emotional debate over the proposed “death with dignity” legislation now in the Vermont House, one might hope that this non-partisan issue can be focused on a single premise: that each Vermonter has the right to determine how they live their last days when facing a terminal illness. Written into the law, H.274, are ample provisions to ensure the illness is terminal (with less than six months to live); that two or more doctors agree on that prognosis; that the patient requests the medicine on two different occasions at least 15 days apart; that numerous opportunities are allowed to rescind any decision to take the medicine; and that the patient self-administer the medicine at the date chosen.
Predictably, there are doctors who support the law and those who are opposed, just as there laymen who support and oppose the proposed bill.
The argument for supporting the bill can be summed up best by a comment by Dr. Diana Barnard in a front page story in today’s Addison Independent: “My practice, and I think every doctor’s practice, is about helping people live well for as long as possible. But we also must realize that all life comes to an end, and that dying well is just as important as living well.”
Just as poignant is a comment by Dr. David Babbott, a former physician and retired professor of medicine (after 26 years) at the University of Vermont, who said at a public meeting last week in Middlebury: “Over time — not overnight — I have become convinced that patients should have the right to declare when ‘enough is enough,’ and if they so choose, to control the timing and manner of their dying.” Babbott also makes a good point that while he respects the rights of people who would not want to take advantage of the voluntary law, he “rejects the right (of those opposed) to prevent those of us who have different beliefs from living out our own beliefs and values.”
Opponents of the law argue that mankind wasn’t meant to be in control of life and death matters. It is an emotional, faith-based argument with no rational counter.
But experience and facts do play a role and can help in Vermont’s discussion of this issue.
Oregon passed its pioneering “death with dignity” legislation back in 1998. Since that time, Oregon doctors have written 818 prescriptions for lethal medication, of which 525 patients between the ages off 24 and 94, ingested. Of those who have used the law, 88 percent were in hospice care at the time they used the medicine.
Interestingly, when the law was first passed, only 25 physicians and five pharmacies agreed to cooperate with the law. Today, 1,150 physicians and more than 150 pharmacies participate. Not only has the medical community come around to accepting the law, fears of abuse by Oregonians have proved unfounded. Family members are not pressuring patients into ending their lives in a move to gain an inheritance or relieve themselves of a caretaking burden. Quite the contrary, says George Eighmey, an advocate for Oregon’s law: “It is generally the loved one who says, ‘I know you want to take care of me, I know you love me, but this is my choice; please let me make the choice.’”
As state legislators make the choice of whether to support this law or not, we hope the question that tips the scale of justice is whether they allow Vermonters the right to make their own choices about how they will face their terminal illness, rather than deny them that right.

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