Senate Bill 108 was approved Thursday by a narrow majority of representatives in the Vermont House, who offered little justification for their refusal to consider several proposed amendments that called for adding safeguards that might have helped prevent abuse and coercion of vulnerable Vermonters under Act 39.
A strong minority bipartisan coalition of the same legislators who lost a bid to fully repeal Act 39 the day before, continued their fight by proposing amendments to add protections to the bill and to ask for more data to help evaluate how the law is working. Among those sponsoring amendments Thursday were Representatives Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury), Mark Higley (R-Lowell), Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), Lynn Dickinson (R-St. Albans Town), and Corey Parent (R-St. Albans City).
Many more spoke articulately and passionately in support of these amendments, and for the right to consider them.
Proponents of Act 39 offered little defense of their position and simply relied on their majority status to preserve S.108 in its nearly-original form, turning a deaf ear to compelling arguments for restoring the very same protections they approved in the original bill that led to Act 39 in 2013. That bill was stripped down in a last-minute deal among lawmakers hell bent on legalizing physician assisted suicide.
Two amendments were ruled not-germane by Speaker of the House Shap Smith; motions made to allow the body to vote on them as not-germane were predictably defeated. After one such defeat, Rep. Donahue said, “Refusing to consider this amendment is a blow to reconsideration of deep flaws in what this law purports to protect.”
Her explanation was followed by one from Rep. Doug Gage (R-Rutland) who said, “Mr. Speaker, there are allegations of known abuse of elders within this legislation. Don’t we owe it to our elderly to legislate a fix to this kind of abuse?”
Freshman Representative Corey Parent offered an amendment that would have called for more comprehensive data collection and a consideration of repeal of Act 39, pending legislative review, in 2018. He made a strong case for why such data is essential to responsibly studying Act 39.
Rep. Donahue spoke in support of the amendment, saying that if Vermont is, in fact, a “laboratory” for aid-in-dying laws, as asserted by the Vermont Ethics Network in some of their printed literature, then the Legislature needs to approach Act 39 “like good scientists,” collecting data to test the hypothesis that “Act 39 is working” or not.
A prepared list of challenge questions was read by Rep. John Bartholomew (D-Windsor), who seemed to be the assigned hatchet man for Act 39 proponents throughout Thursday’s debate. Most of his questions suggested that costs associated with data collection and creating rules would be burdensome to the State, making one wonder whether he felt that protecting human lives was too cost-ineffective to be viable.
When the data-collection amendment failed, a frustrated Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre) explained his vote by saying, “I voted yes for more data, but unfortunately the proponents are afraid of real data. What are they afraid of? The slippery slope is now an ice slope. Who needs good data– as it only gets in the way.”
Despite the absence any substantive defense of their refusal to consider adding safeguards to Act 39, the majority status of supporters ensured the passage of S.108, which did nothing more than repeal the sunset provision Act 39, keeping in place the very few safeguards that survived the hatchet-job it underwent on its way to passage in 2013. These safeguards would otherwise have gone away in July 2016.
We thank all those legislators who acted so decisively in defense of all Vermonters, rather than capitulating to the privileged few who want to compel physicians to assist them in obtaining the means to kill themselves.
Details of the amendments offered and of the roll-call votes can be found in the House Journal for April 30: http://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2016/Docs/JOURNAL/hj150430.pdf
Please take a moment to find out how your representatives voted, and be sure to thank those who supported efforts for full-scale repeal and amendments to protect the rights and safety of all Vermonters.
We will continue to fight.