AP map of the state of Vermont
Terri Hallenbeck, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
MONTPELIER. Vt. -- The Vermont House voted Monday night to give the last vote of approval to a bill that would make the state the first to legalize physician-aided suicide by legislation.
With a 75-65 vote, the bill goes to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who supports the measure and is expected to sign it into law.
"It's an important step of terminally ill Vermont patients," said Dick Walters of Shelburne, Vt., president of Patient Choices Vermont. Walters has worked for the legislation for 10 years.
The Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act will take effect immediately when Shumlin signs it, allowing terminally ill Vermonters to seek a lethal dose of medication to hasten their own deaths, offering doctors, family and friends immunity from being involved.
"It's huge," said Michael Sirotkin, a lobbyist who's been involved with the issue in Vermont for a decade, noting that other states and nations are watching the legislation. "I think it's going to have a major effect on other states' willingness to vote on this."
Vermont will be the third state after Oregon and Washington to allow doctors to legally prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients. Oregon and Washington both passed laws via public referendum. Other states have legislation pending.
Voters in Washington state approved their own Death with Dignity law in 2008, effective in 2009. In 2013, eight states introduced bills to allow physician-assisted death; two states introduced bills banning the practice, according to the Death with Dignity National Center, based in Portland, Ore.
By the time the bill passed just after 9 p.m. Monday, there were few observers in the House chamber, but the bill has been closely fought over for a decade, with advertising campaigns on both sides and supporters backing legislative candidates who agreed with them. The 10-vote margin in the House was roomy by comparison to the 17-13 margin in the Senate and a 16-15 vote to block the Oregon version. Ultimately the bill is a hybrid of Oregon's first-in-the nation law and something less restrictive.
Opposition to the legislation continued to run strong Monday as the House debated the final vote.
"There can never be a dignified death using a handful of pills or a lethal cocktail," said Rep. Carolyn Branagan, a Republican from Georgia, Vt.
All through the years-long debate in the Legislature, one of the strongest points of dissent has been the worry that someone would be pushed into taking medication.
Opponents were armed by the fact that the Senate had rewritten the bill just a week earlier. They argued the Senate version was crafted hastily with definitions left open to interpretation or misinterpretation, and the altered bill lost some support in the House compared with the Oregon-style law that House members had voted on earlier in the year.
The new wording sheds a state system similar to the 15-year-old Oregon law and in its place establishes a pared-down list of guidelines for doctors to follow in filling a terminally ill patient's request, giving them immunity from prosecution. To answer concerns about too much state involvement in a patient's choice, those guidelines expire in three years.
"We are passing a bill that has not been vetted," said Rep. Paul Poirier, an Independent from Barre, Vt. "Do we want to pass a bill ... just accepting 100% what the Senate did overnight?"
The Senate radically changed the bill to win enough votes to pass the controversial legislation in a deadlocked chamber.
"I believe this bill is a very dangerous bill," said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre. "We have facilitated euthanasia."
Nothing in the definition of a patient being capable of making a decision to hasten his or her own life precludes an ill-meaning spouse from translating the patient's wishes to a doctor, Koch said. Nothing in the definition of a terminal condition precludes someone from casting kidney disease as terminal even though with dialysis it would not be, Koch said.
Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington, Vt., agreed. "We need to understand what might happen in the worst-case scenario," she said. "I do not believe the bill before us does that."
Rep. Sandy Haas, a member of the Progressive Party representing Rochester, Vt., defended the bill. Physicians are required to determine a patient's capability, she said, a safeguard against abuse.