Death with Dignity

Once again, the Vermont Legislature is tackling the tricky and controversial issue of "Death with Dignity," or "physician assisted suicide" as its opponents prefer to refer to it. It's one of those morally complex subjects that doesn't easily admit of a clear right-or-wrong answer, and deals with a subject most of us don't particularly care to think about much - our own mortality.

Earlier this year, the Vermont Senate passed a stripped down version of an earlier proposal highlighted by two tie-breakng votes cast by Vermont's lieutenant governor, Phil Scott. The debate was lively, emotional, and split across party lines. But the lean, bare-bones bill that emerged from the Senate lacked many of the safeguards that most legal experts felt should be incorporated into the legislation to protect doctors and medical professionals, so the House of Representatives crafted its own, longer and more complex bill, which passed last week by an 81-64 vote. Now the two versions have to be reconciled and approved anew by both branches of the legislature before the governor can sign it into law.

With the legislature probably in its final week before its hoped-for adjournment on May 11, and with much work to be done on major tax and spending bills, "Death with Dignity" may not make it over the hurdle again. Or, by the time this is published, it might have. We're hoping that's the outcome. For an issue this emotionally charged, it's been a it of surprise not to have heard more about it from readers in our area through letters and other comments. It's certainly aroused passions in the past. Be that as it may, we'll adhere to our support for this measure, as a humanitarian option that offers people suffering from terminal illnesses a way to end their lives with some measure of grace and if you will, dignity. While it's true that medical science hasn't advanced yet to the level of perfection that ensures every diagnosis is totally spot on, and that miracle drugs may yet be discovered that allow for the prolongation of life, let's remember that in the end, this is an option. The terminally ill patient is not compelled to go down this route. While some may fear that such patients might be pressured, subtlety or otherwise, by friends or family members to alleviate the burden they may have imposed or could impose on loved ones and survivors, to the best of our knowledge, the track record on this sort of thing happening in Oregon, which already has such a law on its books, is rare to non-existent. Rather, the law seems to be working as it's intended - to alleviate unneeded pain and suffering for patients who are ready for this step.

One could argue that people, whether they are in a hospice-care environment or not, already have the option of exiting gracefully from this world by declining food or water. That may be so, but as anyone who has ever seen a loved one opt for this course of action knows, this is not a pain-free or guilt-free path. And what makes this morally superior in any way to a lethal injection, at a time and under circumstances of someone's choosing? Ultimately, these are all decisions that belong with families or individuals. They are not ones made lightly or easily. We would expect the numbers of people who opt for "death with dignity" to be quite small. Accepting one's coming mortality is an awesome step. Since it is an event that comes to all of us eventually, and one that most of us like to think will occur when all our affairs are in order and our peace made with the world, the counter-arguments to allowing this choice simply don't overcome the benefits that this legislation would allow, it seems to us.

This is not simple stuff, and we certainly respect those who take an opposing viewpoint. But in the end, this is a choice, not an obligation. We think that it's a choice that those who are ready for it, after careful consideration, should have, and just because they have it, doesn't necessarily mean they will use it.


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