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Vermont legislators approve 'death-with-dignity' bill

14 may 2013, 16:30
Legislators in the US state of Vermont approved a "death-with-dignity" bill Monday enabling terminally ill patients to take their own lives with lethal medication requested from their doctors, AFP reports.

The liberal-minded rural New England state becomes the third in the nation, after Oregon and Washington, to allow doctor-assisted suicide -- but the first to do so by legislative process rather than a voter-initiated referendum.

Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, has stated he will sign the End of Life Choice Bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives in the state capital Montpelier by a 75-65 vote.

"Legislators are now embracing the high margin of public support for end-of-life choices nationwide," said Barbara Coombs Lee of Compassion and Choices, a national group that campaigns for assisted suicide.

"The bill's passage should enable legislatures in Massachusetts, New Jersey and other states that are considering aid-in-dying bills to approve them," she said in a statement.

Under the Vermont bill, terminally ill patients who are given no more than six months to live can ask their doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to hasten their death.

Several safeguards are built into the law, including a requirement for two medical opinions, the option of a psychiatric examination and a 17-day waiting period before a life-ending prescription can be filled.

"The family is encouraged to be involved, but it's not mandated," lobbyist Michael Sirotkin of Patient Choices Vermont, which has campaigned for 10 years for a death-with-dignity law, told AFP.

In the lead-up to Monday's vote, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, which spearheaded opposition to the End of Life Choice Bill, called the initiative "ill-conceived and misguided public policy."

Its president Edward Mahoney said it "does not safeguard patients from abuse (and) makes it impossible to determine whether physician-assisted suicide is being practiced outside the framework of the law."

Coombs Lee cited a 2010 Harris poll for BBC World News America that indicated that 70 percent of Americans believe people who are terminally ill, in great pain or with no chance of recovery should have the right to end their lives.

But Mahoney noted that since November last year, in New England alone, efforts towards legalizing physician-assisted suicide have failed in Massachusetts, Connecticut and, last week, Maine.

Vermont has a reputation in the United States as an early adopter of progressive social policies. In 2009, for instance, it was the first state to adopt a same-sex marriage law; in 2004 it approved the medical use of marijuana.

But it also has one of the fastest-aging populations in the United States. By 2030, one in four Vermonters will be 65 years of age or older, according to University of Vermont economist Art Woolf.

The End of Life Choice Bill is "very, very big for terminally ill Vermonters who, despite the best medical and palliative care, still suffer greatly in their final days," said Sirotkin by telephone from Montpelier.

"People die different kinds of deaths than they did 30 or 40 years ago. Now people's lives can be prolonged well beyond the time of their initial illness or acute incident," he added.

"Some people get to the point where they lose their autonomy, they lose their dignity, and they suffer physically or existentially, and feel they want a better death than the one offered to them now."

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