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Hundreds turn out for doctor-assisted suicide testimony

Associated Press | April 14, 2005
By David Gram

MONTPELIER -- They came to tell of their own and loved ones' battles with life-threatening illness -- many to ask for permission to end the pain and anguish, but others telling of miraculous recoveries.

The House chamber was filled Tuesday night with Vermonters from all walks of life, from a former governor to farmers and laborers, who had come to tell a legislative committee what they thought of a proposal to allow physician-assisted suicide.

"The last thing I would want in this world is to be around and be in pain, and have no quality of life, and be a burden to my family and others," said former Gov. Philip Hoff, who turns 81 in June. "I would therefore like to be able to utilize some aspects of this bill."

That feeling of being a burden was a big problem for some opponents of the bill, who said they feared that if what backers call "death with dignity" became law some elderly and vulnerable patients would feel pressure, or a duty, to end their lives.

The bill, whose prospects for passage in this legislative biennium are said to be slim, contains several provisions designed to answer some of its critics' concerns.

Among them, a patient requesting a lethal dose of medications from a doctor would have to be mentally competent and determined to have six months or less to live. The patient would have to initiate the request, give it in writing and twice verbally 15 days apart. Two doctors would have to agree both on the prognosis and the patient's competence.

Several physicians offered testimony to the House Human Services Committee, but they were not unanimous. Dr. Arnold Golodetz of Burlington, who opposed the bill, said it would be "far better public policy (to assure) state-of-the-art palliative care to every person who needs and wants it." Palliative care is geared to delivering comfort, rather than a cure.

Many spoke of caring for terminally ill friends and loved-ones who wished they could avoid their final days of agony. "She told me that what she wanted was for her doctor to give her a pill that would allow her to avoid a future of weakness, tubes, pain and indignity," Carol Stout said of a friend who died two years ago of a brain tumor.

Jack Caulfield of Westminster said he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002, and that the cancer spread to his liver. He was told he had weeks, perhaps a few months, to live. He underwent an experimental regime of very high doses of radiation and "very invasive surgery." In September of 2003, "my interdisciplinary team of physicians" at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center "concluded that my condition was hopeless. I was given the feared 'get your affairs in order and prepare to die' pronouncement."

He continued, "By the grace of God I'm here tonight, a statistical anomaly. ... If it had been legal, I conceivably could have asked my doctor for a prescription to end my life. Considering all the pain and suffering which I had lived with, such a decision might have been understandable. And with such a poor prognosis my doctors might have been all too willing to comply with my request," he added.

"In that case, I would be dead and buried, instead of enjoying my family and speaking with you this evening," Caulfield told the committee.

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