Dear Supporter of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare,
I suspect you may have been wondering what has happened to VAEH since you have had no news updates in a few months. As you can may have heard via newspaper or radio (or maybe not; see below), our constituent members and organizations have been working very hard and produced a somewhat surprising, but well deserved victory. The reason for the hiatus in our newsletters is that I have been working on a project in England for 3 months. Several members of the VAEH Advisory Council expanded their roles to keep things running smoothly, but I didn’t ask anyone to take over the newsletter responsibilities. So let me try to catch you up on the specifics.
H-168, the so-called “Death With Dignity” bill was introduced in the 2005 legislature and assigned to the House Human Services Committee, public hearings were held, and it was held over for study and further discussion this year. A subcommittee worked on the bill over the summer and proposed some amendments including adding the wording “hastening death”. On April 20 of this year, the Human Services Committee heard brief testimony on the wording of the amendments. Excellent testimony against passage was given by Debra Lisi-Baker, Ryan Whipple, Steve Hale, Norm Smith, Pete Gummere, and perhaps others (I wasn’t there to keep tally). Toward the end of the legislative session, on May 3, the HSC moved forward with a vote on H-128 and failed to achieve a majority, so the bill was defeated in committee.
During the past 2 years, Vermont Death With Dignity, the local prime mover behind this national effort, has pledged to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars from out-of-state proponents, brought in pro-PAS speakers from Oregon to testify, hired a field director and a team of professional lobbyists, commissioned an expensive public opinion poll and was able to receive generous media coverage. When the HSC failed to support the bill, the DWD folks claimed victory (!?!?) because it was brought to a vote. They must have hired a spin-doctor also.
Just a year ago, a straw poll of the Human Services Committee indicated an 8-3 vote in favor of moving forward on this bill. The testimony — of many of you last year, and of those who were able to participate this year — along with letters and contacts gradually swung the vote so that the tally on May 3 was 5-5-1. Voting in favor of legalizing PAS were Rep’s Pugh, Fisher, Frank, French and Haas. Voting against were Rep’s Donahue, Koch, McAllister, Niquette and Turner. Rep. Martin was absent for medical reasons.
One representative who voted against the bill said that he personally supports the concept of assisted suicide, but has been convinced of the dangers of passage, referring specifically to Dr. Hale’s testimony that depressed adolescents would look to such a law as a societal stamp of approval on suicide when things were too difficult to cope with. He concluded “if we by our votes encourage just one teenager to commit suicide, it’s one too many”.
You may not have heard all of this on the local news. I am told that there was a TV crew present for the HSC deliberations on May 3, and they waited eagerly for news of the vote. But when the bill failed ……….. there was no report; no story. PAS was not included in most end-of-session summaries of “winners and losers”.
The VAEH has many worker bees and a very part time lobbyist (0.1-0.2 FTE) who kept close track of events, solicited testimony, prepared written material and distributed it to all legislators, made and aired TV ads, made DVD copies of the TV ads and sent them to all VT legislators. I would like to thank them all, as well as many of you who wrote letters, made phone calls and personal contacts with legislators, etc. This all contributed to the defeat of this measure this year.
Meanwhile, the national Death With Dignity efforts in California and Hawaii have not come to fruition either. And (since I was close by) the British House of Lords voted 148-100 against moving forward with Lord Joffe’s bill to legalize PAS in the UK. British opposition to this measure included a coalition of healthcare professionals, disability rights advocates, pro-life advocates and various church leaders.
You may have heard that the numbers of reported cases of PAS in Oregon remains stable and fairly low. Of course we don’t know the actual numbers since the government only reports those cases reported to them. But you may not have heard that the suicide rate among elderly Oregonians is 56% higher than the national average; and these rates do not include PAS or gray areas like stopping eating or refusing treatment. State epidemiologist, Mel Kohn, said suicide in Oregon is a public health problem. State officials are developing a plan to combat suicide in the elderly. Is this the result of a “societal stamp of approval”? We must watch this disturbing trend.
Again, sorry for the late update, and many thanks to all of you for your efforts in defeating this legislation. We will continue to work over the summer and fall and keep you informed of developments.
Bob Orr, President, VAEH