House fuels up for long night of debate over end-of-life choices

House lawmakers this evening rejected a last-ditch attempt to postpone action on “death with dignity,” paving the way for an hours-long debate that will likely end with the preliminary approval of legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.


An amendment offered at the outset of this highly anticipated floor debate sought to delay indefinitely action on a bill known here as “S.77.” The measure failed by a vote of 51-90, after which House Speaker Shap Smith declared an hour-long recess for dinner.


When debate resumes at 7:30 p.m., lawmakers will consider a slew of amendments, most of them authored by opponents of the legislation. Rep. Mary Morrissey, a Republican from Bennington, for instance, wants medical examiners to have to list the lethal dose of medication as the immediate cause of death for people who choose to avail themselves of what critics call “physician assisted suicide.”


Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, a Newport Republican, wants to spend $250,000 to create a “special investigations unit” at the Attorney General’s Office, where a prosecutor and investigator would work full-time probing for abuses of the new statute.


“People who are well-educated and or well-heeled may have the resources to make very informed decisions,” Kilmartin said during a Democratic caucus earlier today. But when you look at what constitutes an informed decision, there are many among us without those resources, either monetary or (intellectual).”


Rep. George Till, a Jericho Democrat and the lone medical doctor in the Legislature, will offer an amendment that would create a tiered medical license system – one for physicians who would agree to aid in hastening the death of a suffering patient, one for those who would not.


Till said a significant number of doctors have ethical issues with the practice, and “don’t want to be painted with a broad brush as part of a physician community that performs this.”


Till’s amendment calls for a signifying decal to be placed on the medical licenses of doctors who have said they would consider prescribing the lethal dose.


And Rep. Doug Gage, a Rutland Republican, will offer an amendment that would require a doctor to be present at the time the patient takes the medication. Gage’s proposal would also institute a host of record-keeping requirements, including the number of seconds between the moment a patient takes the medication, and moment they lose consciousness.


Democrats representing the committees of jurisdiction on this issue – human services and the judiciary – summarily dismissed the need for each of the amendments earlier today, and they all are expected to fail later tonight. Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, said Gage’s request for physician oversight would make for an “unnecessary intrusion into a very private and sad time for a family.”


As for the use of a stop clock between ingestion and death, Waite-Simpson said, “I don’t know why anybody would want to know that information. It does not seem pertinent.”

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