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Legislature Kills Assisted Suicide Legislation
By Mary Hahn Beerworth

Years of work to prevent passage of a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Vermont came to a definitive conclusion on Wednesday, March 21, 2007 as the House of Representatives voted to defeat H.44, An Act Relating to Patient Choice and Control at End of Life, by a vote of 63 – 82.

It was a victory of historic proportions. Here’s why:

Vermont pro-lifers and others have successfully resisted the push toward euthanasia in our state for decades. In fact, since the first so-called Death With Dignity bill was introduced in Vermont in 1976, a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide has not been enacted into law despite numerous attempts.

The organization supporting assisted suicide has changed its name too many times to count – from the Hemlock Society to Death With Dignity to End of Life Choices – even the bill was renamed this year as "Patient Choice and Control at End of Life,"- all without making any essential change in the original language. It is still physician-assisted suicide no matter how they try to hide their real agenda. But, despite their calculated cleverness over the years, the suicide proponents always came up empty handed at the end of each legislative session.

However, for the past five years, national euthanasia organizations have focused their deadly designs like a laser beam on this small state.

The drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide has suffered defeat after defeat in state after state throughout the 10 years since Oregon became the only state to legalize the deadly practice. So, why did the pro-suicide forces look to Vermont for a desperately needed win in order to revive their failed propositions? Consider the following:

  • Vermont is well-known as a breeding ground for radical ideas.
  • Vermont is such a small state that it is easy and inexpensive to co-opt public opinion - as long as national organizations are willing to pour large amounts of money into surveys containing misleading questions with skewed results, to buy television advertising on Vermont’s two major news outlets, to hire pricey lobbying firms and to capitalize on a media market favorable to their views.
  • Vermonters in the last election handed those who favor suicide exactly what Kevorkian and his ilk could only dream of a few years ago – a state legislature tipped heavily into their column by the anti-war, anti-incumbent sentiment raging through the entire country last fall.
  • A win in this small state would lay the groundwork for the big win - the state of California.
All told, euthanasia proponents were rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of what appeared to be a sure win in Vermont. Proponents of suicide hired nine lobbyists, ran television commercials for months featuring two former Governors, a former Lt. Governor, and a former Congressman. They promoted the results of their biased public opinion polls, claiming 82% of Vermonters favored the legislation and they enjoyed the advantage of a House of Representatives made-up of 93 Democrats, 49 Republicans, 6 Progressives and 2 Independents.

But over the years, a growing coalition of local opposition had been forming to warn of the dangers of passing physician-assisted suicide legislation. The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, under the guidance of Dr. Robert Orr, worked to expose the abuses of the law in Oregon. VAEH developed a radio and television advertising campaign raising unanswered and troubling questions about what effect this kind of a sea change in public policy would mean for our state. At the same time, leading disability rights groups such as the Vermont Center for Independent Living and the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights weighed in against the bill, joined by the Vermont Medical Society and the Vermont State Nurses Association.

Still, most predicted easy passage in the Vermont House and prospects for the Senate looked equally unstoppable. While Governor James Douglas had repeatedly stated that he did not support the concept of assisted suicide, it would have taken 51 votes in the Vermont House to sustain a veto. Just three weeks before the vote, pro-life lobbyists could not count on 51 legislators to oppose the bill.

By March 16th, the bill had been reviewed by two legislative committees and both ignored the serious concerns raised by expert testimony as to the ramifications of such a law. H. 44 headed to the floor for a vote the following week.

But defeat was unthinkable. So, pro-life Vermonters redoubled their efforts and continued to pray. Vermont Right to Life mobilized its extensive network of bipartisan, non-denominational supporters by mailing nearly 5,000 postcards to pro-life citizens in key legislative districts and generating over 9,000 pre-recorded phone messages the weekend before the vote urging members to contact their legislators. The response was immediate and widespread!

In addition, Vermont clergy took the lead from the pulpit and encouraged the faithful to action. Also worth noting is the fact that the Burlington Free Press editorial board published three separate columns in opposition to H.44!

But, the single, most important contributing factor to the change of heart among the members of the House of Representatives was the number of calls, letters and emails they received in opposition to the bill. It was amazing to witness the outpouring of constituent phone calls and the effect it had on the legislative body as a whole – some legislators reported that their calls were running 4 to 1 in opposition while some members of the House reported that their constituent contacts were running as high as 10 to 1 against H.44.

The four-hour floor debate leading up to the vote publicly exposed the flaws in H.44 and proponents of assisted suicide failed to persuade most lawmakers that the bill had enough safeguards to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Eloquent and passionate testimonies from Rep. Peg Flory of Pittsford, Rep. Anne Donahue of Northfield, Rep. Mary Morrissey of Bennington and Rep. Patricia O’Donnell of Vernon and others persuaded additional legislators to vote "no" at the end of the day.

For their money, the advocates of legalized physician-assisted suicide have a string of losses across the country that now includes Vermont. Maybe the resounding defeat of assisted suicide will send a long over due signal to out-of-state interests that Vermont is not for sale. And maybe now the Vermont Legislature will find the time to promote excellent end of life care that includes the latest in pain relief technology, palliative care and hospice services.

For more information about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide: Vermont Right to Life Committee Vermont Center for Independent Living Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare

Mary Hahn Beerworth
Executive Director, Vermont Right to Life Committee

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