Editorial: Death-with-dignity deserves its day in the public’s court

Death-with-dignity deserves its day in the public’s court
As legislative committees meet to prepare agendas for the upcoming session, one piece of legislation deserves consideration and the opportunity for a vote. The issue, known as death-with-dignity, is no stranger to House committees over the past two sessions, but has never been brought to a vote of the full body nor has it been introduced in the Senate.
This is not an issue of right versus wrong. Both sides have legitimate and defensible positions that can be discussed in a non-partisan and rational way. But we also recognize it is an issue that tugs hard at the heart and is fraught with emotional overtones.
That said, our hope is that the Legislature will chose to address the issue this session and focus the discussion on one over-arching premise: that each Vermonter has the right to determine how they live their last days when facing a terminal illness.
The proposed bill, H.274 and S. 103, includes ample provisions to ensure the illness of the patient 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. (See story on Page 1A.)
Predictably, there are doctors who support the law and those who are opposed, just as there are laymen who support and oppose the proposed bill.
The argument for supporting the bill was summed up well in a previous story in this newspaper, in which Dr. Diana Barnard said: “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.”
Opponents of the law have varied arguments — ranging from the concern that mankind shouldn’t interfere with questions of life or death to the values learned in the struggle of those last few months — with good merit.
But perhaps the actual experience of another state should provide some of the most compelling evidence as to the effect of the legislation.
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.
Interestingly, when the law was first passed, only 25 physicians and five pharmacies agreed to participate. Today, 1,150 physicians and more than 150 pharmacies are in the program. Not only has the medical community come around to accepting the law, fears of abuse by initial opponents have proved unfounded.
As state legislators consider their legislative calendar, we first hope that the Senate will take it upon themselves to give this important issue a fair hearing in a timely manner that moves the question to a vote, thus prompting the House to do the same. And, regardless of one’s personal conviction, we hope the Legislature’s focus zeroes in on whether the state should allow Vermont residents the right to make their own decision when confronting a terminal illness, or whether the state should deny Vermonters that freedom of choice.
Angelo S. Lynn

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