True Dignity board members spent the morning listening to testimony before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. There were five witnesses, three in favor of assisted suicide and two opposed.
George Eighmey, the assisted suicide activist from Oregon who has been in Vermont numerous times to tell us that the Oregon assisted suicide law has worked absolutely perfectly, without a single case of abuse or failure, was countered by Oregon physician Charles Bentz, some of whose positions were then attacked by Ann Jackson, former executive director of the Oregon Hospice Association. Jackson claimed, for example, that there is no need for psychiatric evaluations to insure patients’ competency, because any incompetency or treatable mental illness would be picked up by hospice social workers. In the end, she and some of the committee members dismissed depression as a disqualifier for assisted suicide. Ms. Jackson also asserted that it is fine for a person with an illness like diabetes that is only terminal if he stops taking his medication, to do that and not only be admitted to hospice but also be assisted in suicide.
Dr. Bentz began his testimony by telling the committee how he referred a man with cancer to an oncologist who noted that he was depressed but nevertheless asked Dr. Bentz to be the second physician to concur in his request for assisted suicide. Dr. Bentz refused, believing that he should receive treatment for his depression. The oncologist, however, found another doctor to concur, and this depressed man received and used the lethal dose. Dr. Bentz stated that the existence of legal assisted suicide in this case not only destroyed the doctor/patient relationship, since he, the man’s primary care doctor, was overruled by two doctors who hardly knew him, but it also destroyed the doctor/doctor relationship, since he will never again refer a terminally ill person to this oncologist. He also said that George Eighmey, the activist, was involved, calling his medical practice unsuccessfully to recruit one of his partners to be the concurring doctor. According to Dr. Bentz, Oregon has crossed the bright line that separates healing and caring from medical killing, a line that no state should ever cross. The Oregon experience, he stated, has not been the perfect one described by George Eighmey, but has been fraught with problems like those in the case he described.
Paul Harrington, the executive director of the Vermont Medical Society, testified about that group’s opposition to the legislature’s becoming involved at all in the doctor/patient relationship. The society took this position in 2003 through a vote of all its members and re-affirmed it in 2011 by means of a poll of VT doctors. The majority of Vermont doctors do not want laws giving patients the right to request assistance in suicide from them; they are opposed to intentional medical killing, which is what assisted suicide is. They strongly support good palliative care, even if it unintentionally hastens death. They do not believe it is possible to write a law that adequately addresses their concerns.
The Health and Welfare Committee is composed entirely of supporters of assisted suicide who have co-sponsored all the attempts to legalize it over the past few years in Vermont. Dr. Bentz succeeded, however, in getting them to say they would examine and address the issues he raised. As Dr. Bentz told them, there is no way to eliminate the problems arising from allowing medical killing.
There is another hearing tomorrow. This one will be a joint hearing with the Judiciary Committee. The witnesses who are opposed will be Ira Byock MD, Director of Palliative Care at Dartmouth Hitchcock, Harvey Reich MD, a Rutland critical care specialist, and Edward Mahoney PhD, a bioethicist who is director of the Center for Faith and Culture at St. Michael’s College. Those testifying in favor of assisted suicide will be Diana Barnard MD, a palliative care and hospice specialist from Middlebury, Jean Mallary, whose husband, a former US congressman from Vermont who suffered from cancer, committed suicide last year, and medical ethicist Margaret Battin from the University of Utah. It promises to be a long day.
Oh, we forgot to say that Dr. Harry Chen, the State Health Commissioner, testified in favor of assisted suicide on behalf of Governor Shumlin. If Randy Brock, who ran against him in the last election, had been elected, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in our state house again. Our votes count. The election is over, but now our voices count. We are the only ones who can stop this, and we will.