Most states ban physician-assisted death, but a movement is growing to give terminal patients the right to choose their fate.
Dick and Ginny Walters envision a new approach to dying for Vermont residents: They want terminally ill patients with a prognosis of less than six months to live to have the right to request and take life-ending medication.
The Shelburne, Vt., retirees — he's 88, she's 87 — say they are both healthy and fit. They have devoted the past 10 years to the cause, meeting with supporters in their living room to track legislation — including the bill "Patient Choice and Control at End of Life." It passed the Vermont Senate in February and goes to the House this month.
Although assisted dying is illegal in most states and opponents have been fighting proposals for the past 15 years, support is growing in Vermont and other parts of the Northeast. Connecticut and New Jersey legislators are also examining measures.
"It makes ultimate sense to people who have lived their lives in an independent way and don't want to be reduced to an infantile existence and having other people make decisions for them,'' Dick Walters says. "It's taken us a long time, but we think Vermont will do this now."
Vermont would be the first state to pass a doctor-assisted-death bill through the legislative process. Oregon and Washington voters passed similar bills in voter referendums. Massachusetts voters defeated a measure, 51% to 49%, in November.
"We may have lost this time in Massachusetts, but we won in the region,'' says Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the rights of the terminally ill. "I think the movements in the other states are evidence of that. Vermont is close to passing. In subsequent efforts, Massachusetts will have a leg up."
Proponents of the Massachusetts measure were outspent 5 to 1 by religious, medical and disability groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, says Coombs Lee. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston said in a statement after the vote that "we can do better than offering them the means to end their life."
Walters says the Vermont mind-set is different: "Vermonters have a strong belief for respecting each other's beliefs."
When his time comes, Walters says, he doesn't know whether he'd choose to end his life, but his father asked him for help "and it wasn't legal to do it. It was really hard on me to not be able to help him. I've been bothered a long time by his suffering."
He says a group of Vermont friends, including many retired physicians, got the idea to organize after Oregon passed the first referendum allowing physician-assisted dying in 1997. Oregon's law went into effect in 1998, and a similar law went into effect in in Washington in 2009.
The Oregon law requires a patient to get two physicians to say he or she is terminally ill (expected to die within six months), to be mentally competent, an adult 18 or older and a resident of the state. The patient has to be physically able to swallow the medication; someone else can't administer it. The written request for the medication must have two witnesses, one of whom cannot be an heir, and the patient must also make two oral requests.
"There are two waiting periods,'' says Peg Sandeen, executive director of Death With Dignity, an advocacy group that helped write the laws. "The person is certain about what he wants."
Sandeen says when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Oregon voters in 2006 the ruling paved the way for other states to create their own laws.
But fights continue: In Montana, a bill is pending that calls for imprisoning and fining a person "who aided or solicited a suicide." The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that a state law protects doctors from prosecution for helping terminally ill patients die.
Physician Diana Barnard, a hospice and palliative care doctor in Weybridge, Vt., says "citizens are telling us they want this bill to pass. My professional responsibility is to supply the medication."<:aside class="comp single-photo" itemtype="http://schema.org/ImageObject" itemscope="" itemprop="associatedMedia">
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Diana Barnard, a physician, says, "Recognizing that the end of your life is coming is important for so many reasons."(Photo: Handout)
She says most patients want to know when they're dying, but most doctors don't know how to have that conversation.
"Recognizing that the end of your life is coming is important for so many reasons,'' she says. "You get a chance to say goodbye to people, have closure on big issues. I always ask patients: 'If time were short, what would be important to you?' It's criminal to not let people do this."
Another part of the Oregon law requires the Health Department to track the number of people who request the medication, those who take it, and the doctors involved. In 2012, 115 requested it, a record number. Among that group, 77 took it and died. Sixty-one doctors filled orders for medications, one fewer than in 2011.
Dick Walters isn't surprised more patients didn't take the medication they requested.
"Just having the choice and knowing the medication is available can make a huge difference,'' he says. "I think this thing will change how people talk about death and improve end-of-life care."
Even in hospice care, when patients have stopped taking medical measures to prolong life, someone else administers the medication that helps control pain and eventually aids in ending life.
"That can leave an enormous amount of guilt on the family member,'' Coombs Lee says.
"Laws like the one in Oregon relieve the family of the responsibility. It empowers the patient to be in control — to let the family be there, and say 'Hold me while I do this.' "