Vermont’s New Law: A Conversation with Dick Walters and George Eighmey

Dick Walters and George Eighmey
Dick Walters and George Eighmey

I’m proud to announce our new foray into the world of podcasts! In our very first one, we celebrated the new Vermont Death with Dignity law in an interview with two individuals who spanned the US to help Vermont become the first state to pass this law through legislation: Dick Walters and George Eighmey.

Dick Walters is the founder and president of Patient Choices Vermont—a local grassroots organization which has advocated for passage of this law since 2002. George Eighmey serves on the Death with Dignity National Center board of directors and previously helped terminally ill Oregonians navigate Oregon’s Death with Dignity law for 12 years.

Listen to the whole interview on our website. Below, are some highlights from my interview with Dick and George:

Melissa Barber: George, will you tell us a little about how you first got involved with the Death with Dignity movement?

George Eighmey: This movement really grew out of, surprisingly, the AIDS epidemic back in the early 80s. When I was fortunate to be asked to be the chair of an organization that helped people who were facing end of life because of AIDS epidemic and, I saw far too many young men end their lives tragically. There didn’t seem to be any way to give them a peaceful end.

MB: Dick, how has the conversation about Death with Dignity laws in Vermont changed over the years?

Dick Walters: At the beginning of the cycle, the question was a moral question, and that changed 180 degrees over the years to the word “choice.” So, it went from morals to, “do you want to have choice?” And that’s when a heck of a lot changed here regarding support among the legislators themselves.

MB: When do you think that shift happened?

DW: Really starting more effectively: just a couple of years ago.

MB: George, what have you observed when visiting Vermont over the years?

GE: What I saw was this involvement with this particular issue was phenomenal on both sides. They debated it, they discussed it, and the result was this particular issue now is out in the open, so to speak. It is out there where they can discuss it honestly and openly. I didn’t see any animosity or loud screaming or yelling at each other; it was very civil and very passionate. That to me was a good sign. That, first of all, the information we were able to provide from Oregon would really be able to address a lot of those concerns that people had—the fears that they had. And I hoped they did. And that’s what I saw over the years. The first couple of times there when I went around the state speaking, there was a lot of opposition, but then lately, I started seeing more and more support—especially from legislators—who I have an experience of saying are generally 10 to 15 years behind the public’s opinion. In this particular case, they came up very quickly.

MB: Perhaps both of you could tell us a bit more about what you found most challenging in your efforts in Vermont over the years.

DW: Just to stay with it, Melissa. This is a long process; it’s a long commitment; it doesn’t happen easily.

GE: I think in my case, it was the deja vu. Going into Vermont, it was as if I had been taken back 15 years in Oregon, because even though to me, the facts spoke for themselves in Oregon, they didn’t to certain groups in Vermont. And the same arguments, the same fears were expressed in Vermont. And so it was a challenge for me to say, “OK, this is Oregon 15 years ago. And I must recognize that and address those concerns as if we were addressing them for the first time.” Because, frankly, this was the first time Vermonters have addressed these concerns.

MB: And what does Vermont becoming the third state with a Death with Dignity law mean to each of you?

DW: The vast majority of people in Vermont want this basic human right, and the fact that we’re able to offer it to them now is huge. Also, I am convinced this will resonate regionally to other states, and perhaps nationally. The fact that we have become the first state to do this legislatively is important. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches—both approaches being legislative vs. referendum approach—neither one are easy.

GE: To have a state 3,000 miles away join us, it is no longer just a west coast phenomenon. And with a state like Vermont that is unique with so many firsts of its own, that they can now be a leader on the east coast to hopefully get other states to recognize that this law works.

Listen to the whole podcast and keep an eye out for future episodes on our podcast page.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

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