House Blocks Attempt To Stop End-Of-Life Debate

Apr 30, 2013

Rep. Bill Bostow, D-Pownal, listens to debate on Tuesday over legislation allowing Vermont doctors to prescribe lethal mediation to terminally ill patients who request it.
Credit AP/Toby Talbot

The Vermont House is expected to give final approval to a bill that would allow Vermont doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it.

The likely final passage of the bill sets up a clash with the state Senate, which passed a different proposal.

Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the bill, which is modeled after a law in Oregon, gives patients a choice to end their pain and suffering.

“When a patient says, ‘Please help me die,’ her doctor should hear that she’s asking for something different than what he has offered,” Haas said on Tuesday. “We know that Oregon’s hospice usage has grown dramatically since this law took effect. We hope for the same outcome in Vermont.’

But Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre Town, said the bill is not needed. He said advances in pain management should provide terminally ill patients with relief.

“In my view this bill does not deal essentially with medical care. What we have here is the antithesis of medical care,” he said. “Killing is not medical care.”

Koch moved to postpone debate on the bill indefinitely – a procedural maneuver that would have killed the bill.

The debate lasted into the evening and brought out representatives' emotional stories of friends and family dealing with illness and suicide.

Hinesburg Democrat Bill Lippert argued against Koch’s motion. He told his colleagues that they cannot avoid debate on the issue. He recalled the story of his aunt who recently passed away with her close family members nearby.

“And for me that is the powerful motivation for why we are bringing this forward,” he said. “I am moved to not have other Vermonters have to figure out a way to bring an end to their own suffering by having to do it alone and somewhat surreptitiously.” 

But Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, said the bill could send a message that society condoned suicide. Struggling to contain his emotion, Hebert told of his mother who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and could have taken advantage of the legislation had it been law at the time. Yet he said an experimental procedure extended her life for 13 years.

“It is a surrender to give up. She did not. She chose the procedure. She chose hope. She chose hope over despair,” he said. “And the following 13 years of her life, she saw my daughters married, more grandchildren born, and a great grandchild born.”

Koch’s amendment to kill the bill was defeated, 90-51.

This is the second time lawmakers have debated end-of-life legislation. Earlier this year, a divided Senate passed a pared-down version of the bill that would provide immunity from criminal prosecution for physicians if they prescribed the medication.

The bill is scheduled to come up for final approval Wednesday. If it passes, it must be reconciled with the Senate version that includes none of the protections advocates say are needed.