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The aphorism, “He who pays the piper calls the tune” is especially true in politics, as well as in the not-for-profit world.
Currently, the Vermont Ethics Network (VEN) has a traveling road show, despite its historical “neutrality” on matters of end-of-life public policy. The road show deals with the implementation of Vermont’s physician-assisted suicide law, and purports to merely inform people about their options under Act 39. However, the reality is quite different.
Consider funding: VEN has accepted a grant from the national Compassion and Choices, pro-suicide organization in order to educate Vermonters about Act 39. Why?
Recall that Act 39 only passed after 19 roll call votes and a late-night deal eviscerating patient protections, and a host of immunities for health care workers and facilities to garner a slim margin of victory.
Yet a year after passage only two prescriptions have been written for lethal medication under Act 39; both patients involved died of natural causes without using the lethal medication. Perhaps because of the slow start of PAS in Vermont, Compassion and Choices is unabashedly trying to drum up business. It seeks to achieve awareness through advertising for what they hope will become the acceptable way to end your life. In fact, the title given to a VEN conference last fall conveys that sense: “Vermont’s New Normal.” Ironically, throughout legislative debate advocates maintained that PAS would only rarely be used and that requests for a lethal dose would have to originate with the patient. Surely most legislators did not anticipate a statewide campaign to promote use of Act 39.
Why does Compassion and Choices need an ostensibly neutral entity like the Vermont Ethics Network to front their message? Surely Compassion and Choices knows the skepticism which their message meets and hopes that the VEN will create an illusion of respectability. It is no surprise that support for the PAS law plummeted to about 33 percent once Vermonters learned what the law really meant. And about 60 percent of Vermonters did not want their Legislature to even take up the law. But hefty funding by out-of-state special interest donors prevailed.
Has VEN entered into a Faustian bargain and sold its name and its credibility for a few dollars? I think so.
It is at best speculation whether campaign contributions influenced an individual legislator’s vote and the strength of their rhetoric during a floor debate on a given topic.
One more question of propriety arises in connection with this morass: Compassion and Choices has hired sitting Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson as their executive director — the very same Waite-Simpson who worked so diligently to get Act 39 passed last spring.
Remarkably, the very same Legislature that had to have this law despite strong objections within both chambers, and rushed the bill through with its many flaws was this year only able to find time to take up the subject of legislative ethics in the final days of the session, and then only as a resolution to deal with the issue in the next session.
Both legislative ethics and Act 39 are sure to be revisited in the next legislative biennium. Will the piper play a different tune?
Pete Gummere, of St. Johnsbury, teaches and writes on bioethics and ethics. He is on the advisory committee of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare.