True Dignity is quite happy with the version of S. 77 that passed the Senate this afternoon.
News reports to the contrary, the bill is not in any way an assisted suicide bill. It replaces the original 22 page bill with a very short one. It specifically does not exempt a doctor who intentionally helps a patient commit suicide from civil penalties or criminal prosecution. It does not contain any “warning” that a patient might be able to take as an instruction on how to commit suicide. It does not set up a cold, calculated, methodical, formal process by which the state gives its approval to suicide under certain conditions for certain people. It makes it clear, as the original bill did not, that its provisions deal only with situations in which a person self-administers prescription medication to end his own life.
What the bill does is quite simple. It exempts a doctor who prescribes medications to a terminally ill patient with the intention of relieving his pain and suffering from prosecution or civil liability if the medication hastens the patient’s death or if the patient himself self-administers it to commit suicide. True Dignity supports this part of the bill unequivocally.
We are not happy with the provision that reads, “A person shall not be subject to criminal or civil liability solely for being present when a patient self-administers a lethal dose of a medication that has been prescribed for that patient by a health care professional.” We realize it is meant to be merciful to both the patient and his family members, and who does not want to be merciful? It was, however, pointed out in the debate today that there has never been a case in Vermont in which a family member was prosecuted for being with a relative when he committed suicide, so this provision is not needed. We think the possibility of prosecution or civil liability would be a strong motivator to the patient to spare his family the burden and possible contagion of ever knowing he committed suicide and to the family members to engage in suicide prevention efforts when a patient who could have committed suicide easily, in their presence but without their knowledge, instead chooses to tell them about it. We wish the bill had specified that family members would be exempt only when they did not know about the suicide and thus did not have an opportunity to try to prevent it.
As someone said tonight, the new and improved S. 77 may not be perfect, but it is better than we deserve.
The bill now goes to the House, where there will be attempts to bring back the original, Oregon-style language.
Our work is not over, but this was a good day for opponents of assisted suicide.