Five of the six members of True Dignity’s board joined hundreds of people at the Vermont State House this morning for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on physician assisted suicide (PAS). We estimate that people opposing PAS outnumbered the proponents by at least 3 to 1.
We heard strong testimony in opposition to the bill from the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care, a coalition of medical professionals, and from a representative of Vermont citizens with disabilities.
Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, which represents over 20 advocacy groups, testified that this legislation will confirm for many that the lives of people with disabilities “do not count as much as those of the non-disabled.” Legalization of assisted suicide would, he said, “give credence to the belief of many that disabled have the duty to die.”
VAEH was represented by physicians Ed Mahoney, Joe Nasca, Ray Milhouse, Phillip Brown and hospice nurse Lynn Caulfield. The doctors noted that anyone can commit suicide by overdosing on prescription medication, without any help. The VAEH contingent voiced opposition to legalization of assisted suicide on the grounds that it would make medical workers complicit in the death of their patients; such complicity would compromise their training and vocation as healers and palliators of suffering. Phillip Brown, chief medical officer of Central Vermont Hospital, said he knew many patients who, knowing that assisted suicide was legal, would feel that it was absolutely their only option; that, he said, was not choice.
Two physicians, Harry Chen, Vermont’s Health Commissioner, and Diana Barnard of Addison County, spoke in favor of legalization.
In emotional testimony, Kathy Boyer, the mother of a son lost to suicide, opposed PAS, which she said would send the worst possible signal to anyone feeling the overwhelming darkness of spirit and overwhelming weight of seemingly unsolvable problems. In fact, in Oregon, the overall suicide rate began to rise in 2000, three years after the legalization of PAS, and it has continued to rise; Oregon’s suicide rate was 35% above the national average in 2010.
We were distressed to hear an Episcopal clergyman make a plea for legalization for PAS on the grounds that it respects human freedom in a way, he said, some religious groups don’t. Once again, the proponents of PAS are trying to stir up emotions by pretending that opposition to PAS is an irrational religious belief.
We were most distressed that the committee gave a large chunk of uninterrupted time to George Eighmey, an Oregonian activist flown in for the occasion. This is Eighmey’s second trip to Vermont within a year. As he did last spring, he listed all the objections to PAS and simply said they were irrational and unfounded fears. Last May, when we were able to question him at the various forums around the state at which he appeared, he was unable to defend his points. This time, no one could question him. He proudly told us all that he had been present at over 40 assisted suicides. Eighmey is not a physician, and his boast draws attention to the fact that in Oregon doctors are present at very few of the suicides that take place using the poison they prescribe. Instead, patients are attended by members of Compassion and Choices, Eighmey’s group. Compassion and Choices supplies volunteers to talk the patient through the act of consuming the overdose. Last May we posted a video of Eighmey doing just that. Compassion and Choices also maintains a list of doctors willing to prescribe overdoses to whom patients can go if their own doctors refuse.
The Senators asked almost no questions. It was impossible to tell how they were reacting to the testimony. True Dignity hopes they listened to Vermont medical professionals and citizens with personal experiences leading them to oppose PAS. We hope this hearing today was the bill’s very last hurrah.