With a court ruling expected in weeks, conscientious health care professionals say they should not be forced to counsel or aid patients who want to commit medical suicide.
In July, a medical ethics group and a Christian doctors’ group sued members of the Vermont Board of Medical Practice and other state officials over Vermont’s assisted suicide law, Act 39.
The plaintiffs, Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, filed their suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont.
The groups claim that a mandate requiring any participation assisted suicide would violate the religious beliefs of some medical professionals, and that those professionals should be allowed to make conscientious decisions without the threat of disciplinary action or civil or criminal proceedings.
“It’s medically inappropriate for a doctor to be forced to council a patient to take their own life. My clients affirm the sanctity and value of their patients, and the court will have to determine whether that is adequate,” Steven Aden, the plaintiffs’ senior counsel, told Watchdog.
Aden is a member of Alliance for Defending Freedom, an organization that specializes in religious liberty and free speech cases. He told Watchdog he expects a ruling in the next two weeks.
Act 39, Vermont’s assisted suicide law, was signed into law in 2013 by Gov. Peter Shumlin. While the law offers limited protection for medical professionals who object on religious or moral grounds, plaintiffs say the Vermont Department of Health has circumvented those exemptions by requiring them to mention assisted suicide as an option in discussions over palliative care. If a patient then decides to take action to commit suicide, those doctors can refer the patient to another doctor for life-ending prescription.
Linda Waite-Simpson, Vermont state director of Compassion and Choices, a national organization that advocates for medical aid in dying, says all practicing doctors should be required to counsel patients about assisted suicide.
“It’s important at every step to talk about all options. Doctors should do everything they can to make sure patients are not suffering,” Waite-Simpson told Vermont Watchdog.
Asked why every Vermont doctor should be required to participate, Waite-Simpson said, “At such a vulnerable time, I would want to have this conversation with my doctor. No one else.”
The central issue of the case is what constitutes participation. The plaintiffs argue that counseling suicide and writing a prescription for suicide pills both constitute participation in the act. Waite-Simpson said that’s for the courts to decide.
“We’re looking to the judge. Does a referral constitute participation?” said Linda Waite-Simpson,
Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, says the case is about a patient’s right to information. Walkerman admits the law may force doctors to act against their religious conviction, but she argues that patients’ right to suicide in Vermont trumps the religious rights of doctors.
“They are entitled to complete information. All terminally ill Vermonters should be able to make informed choices,” she said, adding,“To understand that balance is something the court gets to decide.”
Both sides agree the case has long-term implications for the rights of doctors and patients alike. Aden said a ruling in favor of the state would be “an ominous step.”
“It will set the precedent that the commitments and values of providers can be set aside by the state, that the state can utterly change the nature of health care from healing to killing,” Aden said.
Waite-Simpson said a ruling for freedom of choice would “have very large implications” for other areas including stem cell transplants, blood transfusions and transgender treatment. “Patients may not be able to avail themselves of these services,” she said.
Vermont remains one of six states that have legalized physician assisted suicide. The other states include Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Colorado.
As of May, doctors in Vermont have written 24 end-of-life prescriptions. It is not clear how many patients have used those prescriptions.