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Legislative Report: Rep. Paul Ralston explains ‘End of Life’ vote

Last week, the House passed a strike-all amendment to S.77 and sent it back to the Senate. In the end, I voted “no” on the bill.
Senate bill S.77 is the so-called “death with dignity,” “physician-assisted suicide,” or “end-of-life choices” bill. The bill started out in the Senate and was modeled after the Oregon law of similar intent. The Senate worked hard on the bill, and it took a twisted course through that body. When the bill reached the floor, it was amended in a simple but profound way. It passed the Senate on a vote of 22-8. My county senators, Sen. Ayer and Sen. Bray, voted “yes” on that bill.
Philosophically, the bill passed by the Senate said that end-of-life choices were a matter between patients and their doctors, and it struck all of the procedural components of an Oregon-style law.
The bill then came to the House where the Human Services and Judiciary committee returned to the Oregon-style law and made their own recommendations for improvements and enhancements in procedures and safeguards. Eventually, the bill came to the House floor.
What ensued was two long days of debate on the bill. It was emotional, with proponents and opponents recounting stories from their experiences with family and friends who committed suicide or faced a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Over a dozen amendments were offered and debated. Some were attempts to defeat the bill; others were attempts to improve the bill.
When it was all over, the House only changed two words in the bill that was proposed: We added the word “facility,” and we change the letter “b” to the letter “c.” That was it.
One amendment offered gained my support, and I believe it best represented the views of most Vermonters. That amendment built on the bill the Senate passed and added protections that most believed were missing.
That amendment captured my belief and my position on this difficult issue:
Patients and their doctors should have every option available to them as they face the end of their lives. The choice is their, and the state should not insinuate itself into their decisions.
I voted “yes,” but the amendment failed, and then I voted “no” on the state-regulated plan.
I don’t believe the state could or should be defining the criteria and process for end-of-life choices. Government does not lend itself well to a situation that requires compassion, consideration and flexibility. It is disingenuous to suggest that people’s situations (health condition, family support, financial condition, living situation, education, etc.) are similar enough that a “one-size-fits-all” process will be effective. The state is trying to define a plan, which if implemented may lead to a person’s death. The state isn’t good at that kind of thing.
Capital punishment is the most egregious example. I oppose capital punishment both on moral grounds and process grounds. When the state tries to decide if a person should be executed, a process ensues — a long, adversarial process with highly skilled advocates on both sides. The process has many levels of appeal to several courts of jurisdiction, and still, the state can get it wrong. We know that innocent people have been executed. The state process for executions is imperfect, and so are the results.
There is a saying that is used frequently in the Legislature: “Don’t let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the ‘good.’” On the floor of the House, it was acknowledged that this bill was not perfect. For me, I believe if the state wants to control life and death, the process better be perfect — and we know it can’t be. That is why I argued that choices should be left to doctors and patients, and the state should not interfere.
Rep. Paul Ralston can be contacted at paul@vermontcoffeecompan

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