Tom Dowham, center, testifies Jan. 29 against proposed physician-assisted death legislation in Montpelier, Vt. / Glenn Russell, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
MONTPELIER, Vt. - As speakers stepped up to the microphone Tuesday to give their thoughts on a bill that would allow terminally ill patients in Vermont to hasten their deaths, both those for and against the proposal invoked God.
"I believe it's God's job to decide when someone should pass away," said Edward Chase of Westford, Vt.
"I don't think God would object to this," said Mary Van Vleck of Charlotte, Vt.
Back and forth, more than 80 Vermonters signed up to speak at the hearing, sharing personal stories. More than 300 people filled the House chamber, most of them showing their sides with stickers that read "I oppose doctor-prescribed death" and "I support the Death With Dignity Bill."
If the bill becomes law, Vermont would be the third state to allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses to those with less than six months to live who request the option. Oregon and Washington have such laws. Massachusetts voters defeated a similar law at the polls in November.
In Massachusetts, the Catholic church headed opposition to the Death with Dignity Bill, and 54% of the state identified as Catholic in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.
But Vermont is a very different demographic. It is the least religious state in the nation, according to the survey. While 26% of Vermont is Catholic, 34% are "nones" - people who say they have no religious identity. This compares to 22% with that self-identification in Massachusetts. The two other states that already have this legislation, Washington and Oregon, are the second and third least religious states in the survey..
"The bill simply offers end-of-life choice," said William Wilson of Underhill, Vt. "Its presence alone is comforting."
A short time later Erica Reil of Barre, Vt., told two Senate committees she'd been diagnosed with a terminal illness only to learn later that that was untrue.
"How many other people are getting wrong diagnoses?" she said, opposing the bill that would allow terminally ill patients to give themselves a lethal dose of medication if they desire.
Vermont's Senate Health and Welfare Committee is taking testimony on the issue throughout the week. The five-member panel is expected to pass a bill Friday that first was circulated Tuesday. The state Senate Judiciary Committee then is expected to consider the bill. Although a majority of that panel opposes it, members are expected to send it to the full Senate for a vote anyway.
Supporters and opponents say a vote in the full Senate - perhaps within three weeks - is likely to be very close. While some senators' stance on the issue is well known, at least five of the Senate's 30 members told The Burlington Free Press on Tuesday they hadn't entirely decided how they would vote.
"I'm still listening," said first-term Sen. John Rodgers, a Democrat who represents the Essex-Orleans District. He voted for such a bill in 2007 as a member of the House when the bill failed but said in the Senate he represents a wider region with more disparate views on the issue and that could change his vote.
Sen. Chris Bray, a Democrat from Addison, Vt., and also a former House member in his first term in the Senate, voted against the House bill in 2007. He said Tuesday he could change his mind.
"I'm listening," he said. "I could go all the way to supporting the bill."
The Health and Welfare Committee is expected to hear from more supporters and opponents the rest of this week. Earlier Tuesday, they 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 the experience gave her a real-life, emotional experience of how important it is to respect the wishes of someone who is dying.
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.
"The greatest response one can show a loved one is actually letting someone go when they decide it's time to go," Kunin 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 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.
"I wouldn't say we don't need the law. This was a unique situation," she said. Someone else might be in more pain. "We have to respect the wishes of the dying person."
Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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