Around New England

34 People Used Vermont’s Physician-Assisted Suicide Law During Two-Year Period

December 30, 2019

In Vermont, 34 people used the state’s aid-in-dying law over the most recent two-year span of data, the Vermont Department of Health reports.

The report includes data from June 30, 2017 to June 30, 2019.

Of the 34 people who sought to use the law to end their lives, 24 had cancer, four had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), three had “other neurological diseases,” and three “were due to other events,” according to The Associated Press.

In 28 of those cases, taking a drug prescription ended the person’s life.

In five of the cases, the person died of the terminal illness without using a death-causing drug prescribed under the law. In one case, the cause of death is unclear, according to the report.

The report also refers to a total of 87 “events” during a six-year period between May 31, 2013 and June 30, 2019, of which 68 (or 78 percent) were because of cancer. The other underlying illnesses were ALS (11, or 13 percent), neurodegenerative diseases (3, or 3 percent), and unidentified other causes (5, or 6 percent).

Vermont Act 39 in 2013 is titled “Patient Choice at End of Life.”

According to The Associated Press, “Under the terms of the law, Vermont residents are eligible to use help end their lives if they have a terminal, incurable illness that is expected to kill them within six months.”

Initially passed in 2013, the law received an update in 2015 requiring a biennial report featuring statistics on how many people used the law and why they did.

For patients to use the law, they must have both an oral and written request to their physician. There must be a witness to verify the request and the patient must receive a second opinion from another physician.

The death certificates in the cases do not list suicide as the cause of death, according to the report.

“All 34 events have a death certificate on file with the Vital Records’ Office. One hundred percent of the death certificates listed the appropriate cause (the underlying disease) and manner of death (natural), per Act 39 (2013) requirements,” the report states.

The report is dated January 15, 2020, but was reported by the Associated Press this past weekend.

When Vermont passed its law, it became the first state to enact a form of physician-assisted death by state Legislature as opposed to a referendum vote by its citizens.

A comparable bill is before the Massachusetts Legislature.

Massachusetts Senate Bill 1208 had a hearing June 25 before the Joint Committee on Public Health of the Massachusetts Legislature. No action has been taken on it since then, as of late December 2019.

Supporters say terminally ill patients should be able to end their pain in what supporters consider a dignified manner.

Opponents say life should not be undermined by a legal suicide option. One terminally ill woman who lives in California, which has such a law, said she felt pressured by a health insurance company to end her life because the company wouldn’t cover her medication but would cover suicide drugs.

Vermont has a population of about 626,000. Massachusetts, at about 6.9 million, has about 11 times as many people as Vermont.

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