Vermont made history last month when its legislature became the first to authorize access to aid in dying. “Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont legislators have shattered a barrier by becoming the first politicians to show the courage to enact a death-with-dignity law,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee about the impactful win. Vermont is now the fourth state to affirmatively allow physician aid in dying and the first in the East. Oregon and Washington both sanctioned the practice through ballot initiatives, while Montana affirmed this option for the terminally ill via a state Supreme Court ruling in Compassion & Choices’ Baxter v. Montana case.
The Vermont bill is also unique in that it starts with rigorous requirements similar to the Oregon and Washington laws, including mandates for waiting periods, second opinions and extensive physician reporting. But after three years it transitions to a model governed by best practice standards, as in Montana. “Professional practice standards guide all of medicine, and it is appropriate for aid in dying to be governed in this manner,” explained Compassion & Choices Legal Affairs Director Kathryn Tucker, who testified before both the Vermont House and Senate in favor of the bill and also served as lead counsel in the Baxter case.
Gov. Shumlin, who pledged to advance this legislation during his 2010 campaign, commented that he knows “how important it is for those who face terminal illness and tremendous pain to have this choice, in conjunction with their physicians and loved ones, in the final days of their lives.” Legislators repeatedly introduced the measure in the Vermont legislature for nearly 20 years, and it faced a vote only once before, when it was rejected in 2007. Now its success could pave the way for other state legislatures. “It’s been considered a political third rail for so long,” Coombs Lee stated in a recent Lawyers.com article. “I think that [Vermont] will dispel those fears and show that it’s okay to vote in keeping with the desires of your constituents on this.”
Compassion & Choices worked alongside Patient Choices Vermont to achieve this landmark victory, mobilizing supporters, contributing critical funds and delivering expert testimony. We will continue to support advocates in the state as it begins to implement the practice.
Indeed death with dignity’s success in Vermont combined with the high level of public support for end-of-life choices nationwide bodes well for neighboring states of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as other states waiting for their right to choose. So while Compassion & Choices is very pleased with this crucial win, we will not ease our efforts throughout the country to empower patients with a full range of options at the end of life. Visit your state’s page to learn the latest and see how you can get involved!