MONTPELIER — After a second long day of debate, the Vermont House gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to ask their doctors for a lethal dose of medication.
One after another, House members rose to tell stories of their own loved ones’ deaths, with some saying a dying parent would have appreciated the choice to end his or her own life and others saying such a thing never would have been considered.
“I’ve listened to all these stories, very personal stories, and I respect every single one of them,” Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, the majority leader, said as the debate drew to a close.
A supporter of the bill, Jewett spoke of the guideposts of family and faith and said that under the legislation, “we all get to remain true to our guideposts at the end of our life.”
House passage came after the defeat of several amendments including one by Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, that would have put the question to voters in November.
Referencing a Senate closely divided on the legislation and the likelihood of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott breaking a possible 15-15 tie in that chamber, Wright said a statewide referendum would be preferable to “perhaps one person getting to decide” whether Vermont becomes the fourth state — after Oregon, Washington and Montana — to allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives with a physician’s help.
Vermont, unlike California and some other states, does not have a citizens’ initiative petition process, and statewide referenda generally happen only in connection with amendments to the state Constitution.
The last time the Legislature asked the public to vote in an advisory referendum not related to amending the Constitution was to set up the Vermont Lottery in 1976.
House passage now sets up what is likely to be a tough set of negotiations with the Senate.
The Senate in February passed a stripped-down version of the bill — 22 pages were reduced to one — that simply relieved of any criminal or civil liability health professionals and family members of terminally ill people who take their own lives.
That version did not include the safeguards that were contained in the original Senate bill or in the version passed by the House that called for the patient to be deemed competent to make the decision, required three requests — one in writing — from the patient to end her or his life, and called for two physicians to agree that the patient had less than six months to live.
The differences between the House and Senate versions most likely will be worked out — if they can be; otherwise the legislation dies — in a conference committee including three members from each chamber.
While the Senate was evenly divided — its amendment shrinking the bill was approved 16-15 when Scott broke a tie in its favor — its conferees will be appointed by the Senate Committee on Committees.
All three members of that committee are opponents of the legislation as originally filed in the Senate and as passed by the House. They are Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, Scott and Sen. Richard Mazza.MORE IN Vermont News
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