Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Vermont Legislature Passes Physician-Assisted Suicide Law

The Vermont legislature has passed a new physician-assisted suicide law and is sending it to Governor Shumlin, who supports it and is expected to sign. The Oregon-style legislation will be the third such state law in the country and the first adopted by a legislature, as opposed to via popular referendum. The strange feature of this law, though, is that while it begins by mandating (in section 5283) a number of Oregon-like anti-abuse measures to make sure that the program doesn't help the wrong people to die by mistake (two different oral requests, 15 days apart; a written request for self-administered lethal medication signed by two disinterested witnesses; findings of terminality and capacity entered into the chart; and so on), most of these requirements sunset in 2016 in favor of the much shorter section 5289, which says only:

"A physician with a bona fide physician–patient relationship with a patient with a terminal condition shall not be considered to have engaged in unprofessional conduct under 26 V.S.A. § 1354 if:
(1) the physician determines that the patient is capable and does not have impaired judgment;
(2) the physician informs the patient of all feasible end-of-life services, including palliative care, comfort care, hospice care, and pain control;
(3) the physician prescribes a dose of medication that may be lethal to the patient;
(4) the physician advises the patient of all foreseeable risks related to the prescription; and
(5) the patient makes an independent decision to self-administer a lethal dose of the medication."

A subsequent section immunizes any physician from civil or criminal liability for any actions performed in good faith compliance with the law.

The legislators's assumption, according to press coverage, is that physicians will have developed adequate professional standards for physician-assisted suicide by 2016. I wonder whether the law's repeal of safeguards will really last, or whether the Vermont legislature will re-think the matter in the next year....

And I know, I'm supposed to say aid-in-dying, not physician-assisted suicide. But I'm an academic, not an advocate, and even though the term "suicide" scares some folks, and others argue that it's not really suicide if you're dying of a disease you didn't choose, my own view is that if you give a terminally ill person some pills with which she can kill herself faster than her underlying disease would have, you're assisting in her suicide. (Wow! On that one verbal point, I actually agree with Wesley Smith! Though, unlike him, I approve of physician-assisted suicide with appropriate safeguards, and think that the Oregon safeguards are appropriate. And I'm not a fan of slippery-slope arguments.)


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