Remember the physician-assisted-suicide referendum that came ever so close to passing last year in Massachusetts, failing in a 51-to-49 percent squeaker?
Well, where Massachusetts feared to tread, neighboring Vermont has now trodden, and the state is about to become the fourth to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people, after Oregon, Washington and Montana. It is the first to do so through its lawmakers rather than a popular referendum or court.
The “end-of-life choices” bill rode a wild political roller-coaster before it was finally passed this Monday evening, and it’s now on its way to a supportive Gov. Peter Shumlin and expected to be signed soon.
Vermont Public Radio’s John Dillon has covered the bill all along the way, and I asked him for his insights into the political dynamics behind the action. But first, a brief note for us flatlanders: What will our neighbor to the north’s decision mean for us? Will we be able to drive with our doctors up to Brattleboro or Burlington if we’re fatally ill and want help taking control of our final days?
I sent a query to Patient Choices Vermont, the group that spearheaded the state’s “end-of-life choices” bill, and heard back from Jessica Oski of Sirotkin & Necrason, a government relations firm that has represented Patient Choices Vermont for a decade. She writes:
1. To be qualified to use the assistance of the Vermont Patient Choice at End of Life Bill, a person must be “18 years of age or older, a resident of Vermont, and under the care of a physician.” There is no specific guidance under the law as to who qualifies as a Vermont resident.
2. In order for a physician to benefit from the immunity under the law the physician must be “licensed to practice medicine under 26 V.S.A chapter 23 or 33.” In other words, licensed in Vermont.
Now for the politics. The tale I heard from VPR’s John Dillon suggests three possible lessons for the backers of physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts: Stick with it. Compromise quickly when the right moment strikes. And you may fare better in a legislature than in a popular referendum.
The Vermont House had considered a “death with dignity” bill in 2007, John said, but it didn’t pass. Last year, a similar measure failed to pass in the state Senate. This year was different. Continue reading