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Will "end of life" legislation pass in the VT Senate?

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The Vermont state Senate is debating "end of life" legislation this week - physician-assisted suicide. They're deciding whether terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live can request a prescription for medicine they can self-administer end their lives. It's generated vigorous debate in the Senate and beyond.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

The Senate chambers at the State House were packed yesterday – and not just with legislators. Community members wearing bright stickers proclaiming whether or not they supported the bill lined the balcony and walls.

Ben Underhill is from Brattleboro, Vermont. He works for a small insurance company and is in wheel chair. 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with rare form of blood cancer.  

"I have a feeling, more than most people, of how my life will end," Underhill said. "And it won’t be fun, it won’t be easy, I’ve gone through a lot of struggles already with operations, etc. I’m a fighter, I’ll continue to fight. But I also know that I don’t want those last three weeks. And so that’s why this bill is important to me."

Andre St. Denis teaches electronics and computer programming at Vermont Technical College. He’s against the bill.

"I think fundamentally we should just choose life," St. Denis said. 

Physician assisted suicide – or, as supporters call it, death with dignity – has been a hot button issue in Vermont for many years.  But it’s never been made into law.

But that may change this legislative session.Yesterday, a bill legalizing physician assisted suicide was debated for over 6 hours on the state Senate floor.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation first passed in Oregon in 1994.

Claire Ayres is Democratic senator from Addison County, who presented testimony in favor of the bill.

"The point that I was most excited to make is that this bill, this bill that allows people to have these end of life choices, has not been to the detriment of people who might be considered vulnerable. There is no evidence of that," Ayres said. 

The bill sparked robust debate among senators, who asked questions about how death certificates would work, how eligible patients would consult with doctors, how prescriptions would be regulated, and how the state would ensure that no one would abuse the law. 

The discussion culminated in a close vote, 17-13, in favor of continuing the debate.

In order to pass in the Senate, the bill has to be read two more times: today and tomorrow.

If passed, it will move to the House.

Governor Peter Shumlin has expressed his hope that the end of life bill will become law this session.

In addition to Oregon, physician assisted suicide is legal in Washington and Montana. 

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