To the Editor,
The following letter has been sent to our Windham County Senators and to Representative Oliver Olsen regarding H-274, Vermont’s proposed Death with Dignity legislation. I hope that others will raise their voice on this important issue.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, Senator Jeanette White, Senator Peter Galbraith
I am writing to voice my opposition to H-274, Vermont’s proposed Death with Dignity Bill. The issue of patient choice, however well-intentioned and compassionately conceived, leaves me uncomfortable when entered into the realm of public policy. I am concerned about public policy that endorses any form of suicide because it sends a dangerous message to society. Like every piece of legislation and despite the many “safeguards” crafted by the writers, H-274 will be subject to the law of unintended consequences. It is precisely this that concerns me.
Frank and open discussion about end-of-life care and planning should be a topic addressed between patients, family and physicians long before such care is necessary. The subject of death is not comfortable for most people: it is a fraught with many fears and denial, both in regard to self and for loved ones. And herein rests the comfort ostensibly offered in H-274: that the patient will have some element of control at the end of life and that family will be relieved that the suffering and demise of the beloved has ended gracefully. Unfortunately, I do not believe that either is true.
With advances in areas of pain management and depression, and with compassionate hospice care, end-of-life care can be managed with love and dignity for the patient, and this is exactly where we should focus our attention. The option offered by H-274 is antithetical to the maxim “do no harm” that is the cornerstone of the medical profession. My concern is for the patient who is alone and has given up on life; the patient who is concerned about the expense of his care or about being a burden to his family; for those who are disabled or for the mentally impaired. In short, for all of those who do not fall neatly into the category of those for whom H-274 is intended. The subtle pressures of a society that provides the choice of physician-assisted suicide cannot be ignored. What is the message sent by insurance companies that reject continued treatment but cover the expense of physician-assisted suicide? Or when a patient recognizes the difficulties suffered by his caregivers, knowing that his own life is nearly over? How do we address questions about the value or quality of life? The safeguards of the law are present, but the genie is out of the bottle and the legislation implies a value judgment for each of these.
In a state that already has a high suicide rate (Vermont is tied for 15th nationally according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2010 statistics), we cannot ignore the implications of legislatively sanctioned suicide.
I do not believe that this is the right direction for our state and I truly grieve the potential for harm from this proposed legislation.
Elaine Beckwith, Jamaica