When True Dignity posted on February 14 that it was “quite happy” with the amended S. 77 passed by the Senate, it did so under the impression that there was a sentence in the bill that turns out not to be there. We mistakenly concluded, “It specifically does not exempt a doctor who intentionally helps a patient commit suicide from civil penalties or criminal prosecution.”
In fact, the bill actually has no words to that effect, making it much more problematic than we previously thought .
The bill, in its current wording, however, does not legalize assisted suicide. It protects a doctor who prescribes medication for relieving symptoms of terminal illness, if his patient then takes an overdose to commit suicide. Could it be subject to abuse? Yes. Does it protect patient choice? Not as well as no law at all would have done. Could it be improved? Yes. Could it be worse? Absolutely. An Oregon-style assisted suicide bill like the original version of S.77, would be much worse.
Here are some reasons why we must vigorously fight an Oregon style law, even if in the end that means reluctantly accepting the amended Vermont-style law:
1. The Oregon-style bill would abrogate Vermont’s common law prohibition of assisted suicide, making assisted suicide legal. The amended version does not make assisted suicide legal, nor does it abrogate the common law making it illegal for a physician to intentionally assist in a suicide. Would he be prosecutable? That would have to be worked out in the courts, but it is unlikely. In other words, the amended version of S.77, decriminalizes rather than legalizes assisted suicide. It puts into statute the current status quo. While True Dignity would prefer that the possibility for prosecution had remained as a deterrent to assisted suicide, the fact is that there has only been one prosecution of a doctor for assisting in suicide in the history of our state, a prosecution that ended in a meaningless wrist slap to the doctor who was then allowed to go back to practicing medicine.
2. The Oregon-style bill would create a state sanction for assisting in suicide and would use our tax money to pay for state-provided insurance coverage of it, for the collection and storing of all the required paperwork, and for publishing annual reports. The amended version does not force the taxpayers to subsidize suicide.
3. The Oregon-style bill necessitates the involvement of numerous people in the act of suicide: doctors, psychologists, pharmacists, to name a few. The amended bill leaves this act in the hands of the individual who commits it and does not require complicity from anyone else.
4. The Oregon-style bill would publicize suicide; there would be news accounts about the first example, examples in which abuse seemed to have occurred, and certainly about the statistics in the annual reports. The Vermont-style bill keeps suicide private, greatly reducing the risk of suicide contagion.
The House is expected to hold hearings and produce an Oregon-style bill like the original version of S.77. We must fight that at all costs.