On Monday night, the Vermont legislature passed a bill allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die if the patient requests it. The controversial proposal, which Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-VT) has pledged to sign into law, is the first to pass a legislative body in the nation. Vermont will become the fourth state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses to patients with 6 months or less to live, after a court order in Montana and ballot initiatives in Washington and Oregon legalized the practice.
Vermont’s bill protects physicians from criminal, civil or professional punishment for prescribing lethal doses of medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients. Before taking this option, a patient must state their request 3 times, get 2 medical opinions, be offered a psychiatric examination, and wait 17 days to fill the prescription. In 3 years, Vermont’s stricter requirements would expire and professional practice standards would begin to govern the law.
According to a study in one Seattle hospital, loss of autonomy was the reason 97 percent of cancer patients chose to end their lives. As the AP notes, Vermont is one of the fastest-aging states in the nation, with a quarter of its population projected to reach 65 years or older by 2030.
During two days of debate in the packed State House, proponents and opponents alike shared emotional stories of watching loved ones waste away or learning of a friend’s suicide. One woman testified that she had been misdiagnosed with an incurable disease by 2 doctors and warned that others who have been misdiagnosed may kill themselves before learning they were untrue. Others told stories of family members who outlived bleak prognoses.
Despite the fierce debate on both sides of the deeply fraught issue, few patients actually take advantage of physician-assisted suicide. Since Washington passed their law in 2010, just 255 people have received a lethal prescription, some of whom later chose not to go through with the program. These low numbers suggest that the program is used sparingly in only the most desperate cases. Moreover, a majority of Americans believe doctors should be allowed to comply with the wishes of terminally ill patients who want to hasten their death.