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Vt. lawmakers: Right-to-die bill won't pass

Dave Gram

Legislation that would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients to take their own lives won't pass this year, two key Vermont Senate leaders said Friday.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears _ both Democrats who oppose the bill _ said they won't bring the measure up for a vote on the Senate floor this year.

After hearing emotional testimony from both supporters and critics of the right-to-die legislation, Sears said Friday that three of the five members of his committee remained opposed.

Supporters of the bill, including Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, had pushed the committee to take the unusual step of sending the bill to the full Senate with a recommendation that it be defeated, in hopes they could get a majority of the 30-member body to buck the committee and support its passage.

"The governor asked us to move the bill adversely. I'm opposed to that," Sears said. "I don't think that's a good way to do business."

Friday was the deadline for bills to be passed out of committees where they originated if backers hoped to see passage this year. Sears said he had decided not to call for a vote in his committee in part because its vice chairwoman, Sen. Alice Nitka, was hospitalized after being injured in a fall Thursday night and was absent. The Ludlow Democrat opposes the right-to-die bill.

The Senate Rules Committee could allow an exception to the deadline, but Campbell said he did not expect that would happen in the six weeks scheduled between now and the end of this year's legislative session.

"We've got a lot of things on our plate," Campbell said. He cited major legislation to overhaul health insurance and plans for replacing the state psychiatric hospital and a government office complex in Waterbury, which were closed by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene. "We've got a tremendous amount of work to do and we're running out of time," he said.

Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont, said he was disappointed in the announcement from Sears and Campbell.

"As advocates, we are prepared to fight for a vote on the Senate floor this year," Walters said in a statement. "We continue to see a path to passage. The Senate vote is too close to call. If the issue gets an unobstructed vote on the floor, there is a real chance it could pass."

"Death with dignity," as supporters call it, or "physician-assisted suicide," as opponents describe it, is the law in three states so far: Oregon, Washington and Montana. Supporters say it allows terminally ill patients to make their own decisions about when to die, often sparing themselves much suffering in what would have been their final days.

Dr. Joseph Nasca, a pediatrician and leader with a group opposing the measure, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, said he was pleased to hear the bill would not pass.

Nasca said Vermont might want to have a debate about whether there should be a civil right to commit suicide, "but please don't drag physicians into it." He said the bill's provisions allowing patients to request a prescription for a lethal dose of medication from a doctor was "fundamentally inconsistent with medical ethics as we understand it."

The Associated Press