Dramatic vote in Senate proves game-changer for “death with dignity”

Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, introduces end-of-life bill S. 77 Tuesday in the Senate Chamber of the Statehouse in Montpelier. Ayer is flanked  on her right by Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, is in the foreground right.

Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, introduces end-of-life bill S. 77 Tuesday in the Senate Chamber of the Statehouse in Montpelier. Ayer is flanked on her right by Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, is in the foreground right.

The Legislature may have 180 members, but the biggest votes in Vermont’s history often come down to a single individual. And in the Senate Wednesday evening, Sen. Peter Galbraith used his turn at the wheel to derail a decade-old push for a state-sanctioned process by which doctors could hasten the death of their terminally ill patients.

As one of four senators refusing to say publicly whether he supported “death with dignity,” the Windham County Democrat has been at the center of the intrigue since last month. On Tuesday, he broke his silence by voting in favor the bill. His support would prove fleeting.

The controversial legislation outlined a process by which physicians could prescribe lethal doses of medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live. Galbraith said he supports the intent of the bill – to allow suffering individuals to bow out on their own terms, surrounded by friends and family. But he said the “state-sponsored process” constituted undue government intervention in what should be a sacred exchange between doctor and patient.

Peter Galbraith

Peter Galbraith

Instead of a defining a lengthy and highly regulated procedure by which patients of sound mind can seek a fatal dose of barbituates from their consenting doctors, Galbraith said, the state ought to simply indemnify any physician who agrees to prescribe the medication.

Under normal circumstances, Galbraith’s proposal wouldn’t have stood a chance. But Wednesday wasn’t a normal day.

The vote on the bill Tuesday passed by a 17-13 margin, and Galbraith wasn’t the only ‘aye’ to register  concerns with the bill. Sen. Bob Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat, also dislikes the legislation, and said his ‘yes’ vote Tuesday was only to give its supporters a chance to make it more palatable before a final vote Thursday.

Galbraith’s amendment sought to strike entirely the underlying bill, which was modeled after a 15-year-old statute in Oregon and has been years in the making here. He then replaced the 22-page bill with a five-paragraph amendment that insulates from civil and criminal liability a doctor who prescribes a “lethal dosage” to a terminally ill person. The amendment also protects from liability any friend or family member who is in the presence of the person when they ingest the medication.

The amendment gave opponents of the original bill the opening they’d been looking for. By voting in favor of Galbraith’s bill – a measure most wouldn’t support generally – they could effectively kill off the legislation it sought to replace. Sure enough, all 13 people who voted against the bill Tuesday voted in favor of Galbraith’s amendment today. They were joined by Galbraith and Hartwell, which led to a 15-15 tie on the floor of the Senate. That left the tie-breaking vote to Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, an avowed opponent of “physician assisted suicide.” He voted ‘yes’ for Galbraith’s amendment.

It was a dramatic moment that took even jaded Statehouse veterans by surprise.

It isn’t the end of the road for the original bill. Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, has spent the last six weeks shepherding the Oregon-style bill through the Senate. “As much as I detest” the Galbraith amendment, Ayer said, she encouraged her colleagues to vote in favor of it.

By getting it through the Senate and over to the House, she said, lawmakers can bring the bill back to its original form and get a second chance to pass it as-is. Sen. Dick McCormack agreed, saying there are procedural reasons to pass the bill, “even in its presently grotesque form.”

Galbraith said his amendment differs philosophically from the bill it replaces in only one area.

“And that is as to what safeguards are built in,” Galbraith said. “The other bill leaves it to the state to decide who can do what under what circumstances. I believe the best safeguard is the close relationship between a doctor and their patient.”

He seemed taken aback by the intensity of the hostility to his amendment.

“It’s not grotesque. It’s not a travesty,” he said. “It isn’t exactly what they wanted, but it delivers the result they were looking for.”

Ayer said the underlying legislation sought to end precisely the kind of ill-defined, poorly overseen, under-the-table process that Galbraith’s bill would legalize. She said the legislation sought to engender deeper conversations between doctors and patients about the dying process, and make sure terminally ill people understand the range of palliative care options available. Ayer said she worries the Galbraith amendment may also create some new legal loopholes ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous doctors or caregivers.

Dick Walters, head of Patient Choices Vermont, an advocacy group pushing the bill, said Galbraith’s amendment “strips all of the carefully crafted and well-tested safeguards from the bill and instead gives physicians full immunity when prescribing lethal doses of medication.”

The bill comes up for final reading Thursday, creating another potentially interesting vote. A number of senators who supported the underlying bill voted against Galbraith’s amendment today. The amendment carried only because of unanimous support from opponents of the underlying bill. But the original bill is dead now, in the Senate at least, and can’t be resuscitated regardless of the fate of the Galbraith amendment. That means the same people who wanted to see the bill killed off entirely can now vote against the Galbraith amendment without consequence. And if senators who supported the original version don’t come around to Galbraith’s language, the legislation, in all its forms, could die for good.

Walters said he hopes senators who support the underlying bill will hold their noses and vote ‘yes’ for the amendment.

5 Responses to Dramatic vote in Senate proves game-changer for “death with dignity”

  1. Kill the bill, not the patients! This just proves how Godlessly, detestable our state has become. If they pass this sinful piece of dung, then who will they want to eliminate in the name of saving money? Will it be the mentally ill, the handicapped-who? Given this state’s history, they will continue to play God.They preach Vermont is “leading the way” on these issues. God will lead Vermont first when the end of the world as we know it comes. Each of us has to pay for our sins.

    • @lorac odraned If there is a god, and he is loving, then he would support death with dignity bills.  Any god that wouldn’t isn’t a god worth worshipping.

  2. There’s a bit of political jiu jitsu happening, but this bill is far from dead. The Senate should pass Senator Galbraith’s amended bill. Were it to do so, the House could read Senator Galbraith’s bill for the first time and send it to committe. In the House committee the bill could be amended back to something closer to the original Death with Dignity version. Were the House committee to amend the Senate’s version of the bill and pass their amended version out of committe instead of Galbraith’s, the committee’s version of the bill would be the bill that could be voted on the House floor. If the amended House version of the bill passes the floor vote, the two disperate versions of the bill that passed the Senate and the House would have to be reconciled in conference committee. The leadership of the Senate and House would then be tasked with choosing three senators and representatives to the conference committee in order to reconcile the two differing versions. The conference committee could then debate and pass their own reconciled version of the two bills into law with just four supporting votes. Governor Shumlin could then sign the amended-amended-reconciled Death With Dignity bill into law. Ironically, Senator Galbraith’s attempted end-around of this bill could be responsible for creating this obscure pathway for Death with Dignity’s final passage through a divided Senate and into law.

  3. There’s a bit of political jiu jitsu happening, but this bill is far from dead. The Senate should pass Senator Galbraith’s amended bill. Were it to do so, the House could read Senator Galbraith’s bill for the first time and send it to committee. In the House committee the bill could be amended back to something closer to the original Death with Dignity version. Were the House committee to amend the Senate’s version of the bill and pass their amended version out of committee instead of Galbraith’s, the committee’s version of the bill would be the bill that could be voted on the House floor. If the amended House version of the bill passes the floor vote, the two disparate versions of the bill that passed the Senate and the House would have to be reconciled in conference committee. The leadership of the Senate and House would then be tasked with choosing three senators and representatives to the conference committee in order to reconcile the two differing versions. The conference committee could then debate and pass their own reconciled version of the two bills into law with just four supporting votes. Governor Shumlin could then sign the amended-amended-reconciled Death with Dignity bill into law. Ironically, Senator Galbraith’s attempted end-around of this bill could be responsible for creating this obscure pathway for Death with Dignity’s final passage through a divided Senate and into law.

  4. There’s a bit of political jiu jitsu happening, but this bill is far from dead. The Senate could pass Senator Galbraith’s amended bill. Were it to do so, the House could read Senator Galbraith’s bill for the first time and send it to committee. In the House committee the bill could be amended back to something closer to the original Death with Dignity version. Were the House committee to amend the Senate’s version of the bill and pass their amended version out of committee instead of Galbraith’s, the committee’s version of the bill would be the bill that could be voted on the House floor. If the amended House version of the bill passes the floor vote, the two disparate versions of the bill that passed the Senate and the House would have to be reconciled in conference committee. The leadership of the Senate and House would then be tasked with choosing three senators and representatives to the conference committee in order to reconcile the two differing versions. The conference committee could then debate and pass their own reconciled version of the two bills into law with just four supporting votes. Governor Shumlin could then sign the amended-amended-reconciled Death with Dignity bill into law. Ironically, Senator Galbraith’s attempted end-around of this bill could be responsible for creating this obscure pathway for Death with Dignity’s final passage through a divided Senate and into law.