By John Dillon
Vermont Public Radio
January 4, 2012
(Host) Former House Speaker Richard Mallary was well known as a politician who stuck to his convictions.
Mallary was a strong supporter of “death with dignity” legislation. In the past year, he also suffered from incurable cancer. Mallary’s family says he followed his convictions on this issue when he took his own life last fall.
As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the family hopes their story will help to humanize the debate.
(Dillon) Richard Mallary had already gone public with his views on end of life care. He was a member of the advisory board to Patient Choice Vermont. The organization wants the Legislature to pass a bill allowing terminally ill patients to get medications they can use to end their lives.
In 2007, Mallary and his wife Jean, made a TV ad supporting the bill.
(Richard Mallary) “I think clearly the time has come. I don’t recall the first time we had the discussion. But we probably had the discussion many times over 25 years. Nobody is forced to participate in this activity. This is optional only. It’s optional for the person who wishes to do it.”
(Jean Mallary) “There are all kinds of safeguards. It’s just a big relief. We just hope it’s in time for us, that’s all.”
(Dillon) It wasn’t in time. The bill that supporters call “death with dignity” and opponents call physician-assisted suicide is stalled in the Statehouse.
Mallary, who was 82 and suffering from terminal prostate cancer, chose to end his life last September.
His nephew, Peter Mallary, says his uncle discussed his options with his family, including one conversation about ten days before he died.
(Peter Mallary) “He was open about his conviction in this area with his kids and with other people. He never used his particular situation publicly to push the issue. But with his family we were very clear this was a likely option for him. And that was his choice.”
(Dillon) Peter Mallary doesn’t want to talk about how his uncle died. He said it came sooner than some in the family had foreseen. But he says the cancer – which had spread to his uncle’s spine – was undoubtedly causing great pain.
(Peter Mallary) “I think some of us were shocked and saddened by the timing, only assuming he was in more pain than we thought. None of us were shocked by his decision, however.”
(Dillon) Richard Mallary had a long and storied career in Vermont politics and business. At the age of 22 he was elected to chair the select board in the town of Fairlee. He later served in the Vermont House, where he was elected speaker in 1966. In the early 1970s, he served in the U-S Congress. He was defeated in a 1974 Senate race by Democrat Patrick Leahy. He served one more term in the Vermont House in 1998, losing his Orange County seat after supporting civil unions.
Since then, he remained active in civic issues, including the debate over the end-of-life bill.
Peter Mallary said his uncle never wavered from his beliefs.
(Peter Mallary) “Dick had the courage of his convictions right all the way though his life to the end of his life. And I think that many people know that he paid the ultimate political price for his stand on civil unions a decade ago. And that’s the kind of person he was.”
(Dillon) Opponents of the bill say Mallary’s decision should have no effect on the debate. Ed Paquin, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, thinks the bill is a threat to disabled people who could find themselves under pressure to end their lives.
Paquin said he did not want to comment on Richard Mallary’s personal decision.
(Paquin) “But I think the key thing that we need to focus on is what is good public policy. And I don’t think it’s good public policy that doctors be allowed to prescribe lethal medication, which is then administered in an unsupervised way.”
(Dillon) Peter Mallary said that his uncle would have embraced the debate – and that he would have wanted the public to know of his own choice at the end.
(Peter Mallary) “He felt so strongly about this issue. He was open about his position; spoke at the Statehouse a year ago about it. And he would have no problem with our discussing it, particularly in light of the fact the bill may come up again this year. And he would want it to.”
(Dillon) The prospects for the bill are uncertain. It faces an uphill battle in the Senate, were Senate President John Campbell is opposed to it.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.