Vermont Legislature Debates Controversial ‘Right To Die’ Bill

The Vermont Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee has taken up a controversial measure that would “allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses [of medication] to those with less than six months to live who request the option.” If the bill were to pass, it would make Vermont only the third state after Oregon and Washington to legalize a so-called “right to die” measure.

The bill has aroused significant passions in both supporters and detractors, with each side claiming that their views represent a more humanitarian approach to public health issues for the terminally ill:

Earlier Tuesday, [the committee] heard from former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who described watching her brother, former state Sen. Edgar May, die last month.

“He told me, ‘I want to die.’ We were all shocked,” Kunin said, as she addressed committee. “He didn’t want to live an incapacitated life.” […]

Kunin said her brother didn’t need a lethal dose of medication, as the bill allows. Instead, having suffered from a series of strokes, he voluntarily withdrew his medications and had his feeding tube removed. His doctors and family went along with his wishes, she said. […]

Edward Mahoney, president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care, was in the audience listening as Kunin testified. An opponent of the bill who is also scheduled to address the committee this week, Mahoney said her story was compelling but also shows why such a law is not needed. Her brother’s doctors followed his wishes and made him comfortable, Mahoney said.

Kunin disagreed. “I wouldn’t say we don’t need the law. This was a unique situation,” she said, whereas someone else might be in more pain. “We have to respect the wishes of the dying person.”

The bill is expected to receive a full vote in the Vermont state Senate, and the outcome is likely to be close and unpredictable, as the issue has cut across party lines and regular partisan polarization.


Oregon and Washington’s physician-assisted suicide laws have shown that a very low percentage of the terminally ill actually request or utilize them. That lends some credence to the argument that only Americans in dire need of such procedures would pursue them, and that a lack of access to these provisions encourages self-inflected harm and suicide, which might increase the suffering of the terminally ill.

Still, others argue that “right to die” legislation embodies a race to the bottom. Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly voted down a similar law in the most recent election cycle.