One year ago today, Vermont made history. May 20, 2013, was the day Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill to make Vermont the third state in the US with a Death with Dignity law—the first law of its kind on the East Coast, and the first passed through the legislative process. I was honored to be among the crowd which gathered to witness the bill signing ceremony. What a day!
It was a day full of emotion and elation. Some folks at the ceremony were facing serious illnesses and were relieved to know they’d have more options if their prognoses became terminal. People who’d carefully considered what’s best for themselves their entire lives simply wanted more control over their final days. Each person I talked to recognized that what might be the best decision for one person may not be what others would choose, but one truth prevailed: all individuals should be able to make that decision for themselves.
These principles are fundamental to Death with Dignity laws. People who’ve made all the major decisions in their lives—whether or when to get married, buy a house, have children—typically also want to have the option to make their final decision about how they die. As Governor Shumlin said during his speech, Death with Dignity “does not compel anyone to do anything they don’t choose in sound mind to do.” It’s the decision of a terminally ill, mentally competent individual, and no one else.
Vermont’s law, which emulates the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, was achieved after more than 10 years of dedicated work together with our partners in Vermont. And our work didn’t stop there.
Soon after the law went into effect, National Center board member George Eighmey (who was with me at the bill signing ceremony) and other professionals familiar with the processes in Oregon and Washington worked closely with Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen to develop a system in full compliance with the Vermont law.
With our firsthand knowledge of Death with Dignity laws, we also quickly became a resource to help doctors and pharmacists in the state learn more about their rights, the safeguards in the law, and the request process. In addition, throughout the year, we provided information directly to terminally ill Vermonters seeking information about the state’s new law.
With Vermont’s law in place and celebrating one year, momentum toward Death with Dignity policy reform is now growing from, quite literally, coast to coast. It’s a matter of perseverance and time before all terminally ill Americans will have the option to control the manner and timing of their own deaths. With your support, the Death with Dignity National Center will be there every step of the way!
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