Friday, May 10, 2013
Assisted Suicide in Vermont: I am Worried
It appears assisted suicide legislation will soon pass into law in the state of Vermont. The Vermont State Senate voted 17-13 to pass the Patient Choice at the End of Life Act. The bill will be sent to back to the House and Governor Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the bill into law. This news has created a buzz because Vermont will become the third state in the nation to pass such legislation. Proponents of assisted suicide legislation surely consider this a great victory (Thaddeus Pope at Medical Futility was down right gleeful, see http://medicalfutility.blogspot.com/2013/05/vermont-to-legalize-aid-in-dying.html). Opponents of assisted suicide such as the Death with Dignity Center, Vermont Right to Life Committee, Second Thoughts and Not Dead Yet are disappointed.
I am not surprised this bill was passed into law. Vermont, a small rural state with a small population, is a cultural entity unto itself. I deeply admire Vermonters. I have spent a lot of time in Vermont since I started skiing. But I am not a Vermonter and this is an important fact. For some Vermonters being from a different state disqualifies me from stating an opinion pro or con about Vermont legislation. I get his. I am a New Yorker, an outsider. My business via ski tourism is welcome but I should butt out of Vermonters business. I get this. I do not come across many Vermonters stating an opinion about New York legislation. Vermont embraces an especially tough rugged type of individualism. I get this. Americans of every stripe embrace and value individual freedom. We applaud independence and a strong work ethic. And wow do the people of Vermont work hard. The Vermonters I have met and skied with are good people. The very best in fact. Vermont really has communities that work together in ways I admire. If you doubt me read about the response to the recent hurricanes. In the face of a natural disaster Vermonters went out of their way to help others and rebuild roads and bridges at warp speed.
If Vermonters are so great why did they pass assisted suicide legislation that I consider potentially dangerous? I would speculate Vermonters have embraced a type of individualism that does not permit them to think about vulnerable populations and the risks they can encounter. I get this. Vermonters are individuals and members of a strong and vibrant community. We will take care of our own. We will care for the sick, elderly and disabled. I contend not every person is part of a community in Vermont. There are socially isolated people who have no social connections. This is an afront to Vermonters.
Again, I admire the individualism and work ethic of Vermonters. So let me appeal and provide a Vermont based example of the risks I worry about when it comes to assisted suicide legislation. Amanda Baggs has Autism. She lives in Burlington Vermont. As many have already detailed, Baggs was recently seriously ill and in need of having a JG Tube inserted. This is an ordinary surgical procedure and in Baggs case would undoubtedly be life saving. Yet this is not what some Vermont doctors thought was was the best course of action. They pressured Baggs to consider the “alternative”. The “alternative” here was death. Thankfully Baggs experience generated a strong response on the part of the Autistic community in particular and the disability rights community in general. I could state much more about the response to Baggs experience but I want to remain Vermont specific. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, until recently a resident of Vermont, and person with Autism wrote:
There has been a great deal made lately of the so-called right to die — the right of terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of medication in order to end their lives. Advocates for “death with dignity” believe that they can put enough safeguards in place to ensure that people are able to make a free and autonomous decision, protected from outside pressure at the hands of parties who do not have their best interests at heart. Under our current system, the very notion of this kind of autonomy is a dangerous myth. There can be no free and autonomous decision to die with dignity when people who want to live with dignity are not encouraged to live — when the very idea that they can live with dignity is not even on the radar of the doctor who walks into the room. Let’s face it: disabled people represent the failure of the medical profession to live up to the mythology our culture has built around it — that cures are right around the corner, that medical science is all powerful, that life can be made perfect and pain free, and that even death can be put off indefinitely. People with disabilities are an affront to a culture that idolizes the medical profession and assigns it all kinds of power it does not have. The myths by which we live fail abruptly in the presence of a person with disabilities, and doctors are no more immune from the power of those myths than anyone else.
For more by Rachel Cohen Rottenberg see: http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/author/admin/
Cohen-Rottenberg's last line is chilling—“doctors are no more immune from the power of those myths than anyone else”. Until 2010 I refused to believe a physician could be so biased (yes, I was that naive). I revere education and knowledge and refused to believe such a physician could be grossly biased against a population of people. This is what education is all about—instilling the ability to reason, to see shades of gray in a black and white world, to notice subtle nuances, and be free of bias. One experience in a hospital late at night shattered that illusion for me. It was a soul crushing experience I tried to bury with all my heart and all my soul. See:http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/HCR/Detail.aspx?id=5905 My experience, Amanda Baggs and an unknown number of others is exactly why I am worried--it is why all people should be worried. Like it or not, vulnerable populations exist in every state. In every state where assisted suicide is legal vulnerable populations are at an increased risk. Proponents of assisted suicide legislation scoff my concerns. They quickly point out no abuse I worry about has ever taken place in Oregon and Washington. What these people fail to mention is that state required reporting accounts for not much more than the barest demographics of the person that ended their life. Under state required reporting my experience and Baggs experience would not come to light. In fact Baggs and I are lucky. We had family and friends. Yes, I am indeed worried. What happens to those who are isolated and alone? What happens to an elderly person that has outlived his family and friends? What happens to a terminally ill person who is all alone? What happens to those with severe disabilities--especially those with profound cognitive disabilities? What happens to a person with a severe mental illness? Who will support and protect these people? I hope Vermonters will heed my words and think about these questions.