Group resumes crusade for death-with-dignity law

MIDDLEBURY — Nancy Niedzielski’s husband, Randy, was 55 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2000. He died six years later after a great deal of suffering and after making a final request of his wife: Help their home state of Washington pass a law to allow terminally ill patients to end their lives.
“He didn’t want anyone else to suffer like he did,” Niedzielski said.
Niedzielski kept her promise. She spent more than a year working with a group that successfully spearheaded “Initiative 1000,” a public referendum that earned 60-percent support and that resulted in Washington State adopting a death-with-dignity law in 2008 that took effect during the spring of 2010.
Washington therefore joined Oregon as the only states in the union to thus far offer an option for terminally ill patients to end their own lives under a specific process monitored by physicians, family and other health care professionals.
“I was a woman on a mission,” Niedzielski said of her efforts. “I did anything and everything that they would let me do.”
While she has fulfilled her husband’s wish, Niedzielski has not stopped promoting death-with-dignity legislation. She has now joined the effort to get such a law passed in Vermont, where there are two bills (H.274 and S.103) waiting for legislative action during the 2011 session.
Niedzielski will be spending the next few days sharing her Washington experiences on behalf of “Patient Choices Vermont,” a group promoting death-with-dignity legislation for the Green Mountain State. Niedzielski spoke to a crowd that gathered at the Ferrisburgh Town Hall on Tuesday, with the intent of getting people to urge their legislators to act on S.103 or H.274.
“We are hopeful,” said Amy Shollenberger, a grassroots organizer for Patient Choices Vermont.
The proposed legislation would allow qualifying, terminally ill patients aged 18 or older the option of taking their own lives using a prescribed drug. Under terms of the proposed law, the patient must:
• Be a Vermonter and have been diagnosed with an incurable, irreversible disease that would, “within reasonable medical judgment” result in death within six months.
• Make two oral requests in the presence of his or her physician – with 15 days in between. When the patient makes the request the second time, the physician must offer the patient the opportunity to rescind the request.
• Make a written request for the medication, a request that must be signed, dated and performed in the presence of two witnesses. Neither of the witnesses can be the patient’s physician, counselor, close relative or anyone who might benefit from the patient’s death. The written request can only be completed after the patient gets a second opinion on his or her diagnosis and prognosis. The patient’s physician must also inform the patient of all other end-of-life options, such as pain control and comfort care.
• Self-administer the drug, assuming all the preceding requirements are met.
The legislation would also require the attending physician to refer the patient to counseling if he or she was showing any signs of impaired judgment.
Shollenberger noted that various groups have been lobbying for death-with-dignity legislation in Vermont for nine years. Such legislation has thus far failed to garner enough support. But Shollenberger believes that with two states now having such a law on the books, the political winds might be more favorable for passing such a measure in Vermont.
“There is a group of core people in the Legislature who have been thinking about this for a long time,” Shollenberger said.
While some lawmakers probably have been considering death-with-dignity legislation, they might not have a lot of time to address it in the near future. That’s because the 2011 session is likely to be dominated by debate and action on tough state budget choices, post-Tropical Storm Irene repairs to roads and bridges throughout Vermont, and further development of single-payer health care legislation.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is the majority whip of the Vermont House. He said House leadership will soon meet to discuss the 2011 legislative agenda.
“I think this year, more than any of the years I’ve been (at the Statehouse), we will see the agenda developed in advance of January,” Jewett said. He added recovery from Irene will likely set the tone for what the Legislature will be able to take on during the session, which usually lasts around 16 weeks.
Jewett added House committee chairs will play a substantial role in terms of determining the workload they can take on.
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, is chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee. She acknowledged that while H.274 remains in her committee, she said the initiative’s chances would be greatly enhanced if it were to emerge from the Senate first.
“The House has brought the bill to the floor, and it did not pass around four years ago,” Pugh said.
“It’s been through the House a couple of times,” she added. “I think it would behoove supporters to show there is support in the Senate.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. She noted S.103 currently sits before in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ayer said she personally supports the bill and would take up S.103 if it makes its way to her committee. But she is not optimistic, at this point, about the bill’s chances of moving through the state’s highest chamber.
“There has been a lack of support in the Senate, and that is surprising,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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