Vermont doctors: Don’t force us to help kill patients
Physicians’ groups sue over state’s demand they counsel patients about assisted suicide
A group of Vermont medical professionals is suing state officials for demanding doctors counsel patients on physician-assisted suicide.
The Vermont Board of Medical Practice and Office of Professional Regulation declared the state’s assisted suicide law, enacted in 2013, requires healthcare professionals, regardless of conscience or oath, to inform terminally ill patients that one of their medical options is doctor-prescribed suicide.
Two groups—Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Christian Medical and Dental Association—filed a lawsuit in federal court in July against the state agencies, saying the mandate forces doctors to help kill their patients and violates their oath to “do no harm.”
In September, the groups, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed a request for a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the rules until the lawsuit, Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare v. Hoser, is settled. They are now waiting for a ruling after a hearing with a judge earlier this month.
“The government shouldn’t be telling healthcare professionals that they must violate their medical ethics in order to practice medicine,” said ADF senior counsel Steven H. Aden. The request for a preliminary injunction notes that enforcement is “imminent,” and that attempts to repeal or amend the law have proven futile. “We hope that [the judge] rules soon, because the rights of hundreds of Vermont doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are at stake in the case,” Aden added.
Under the state’s current interpretation of Act 39, Vermont’s assisted suicide law, doctors who do not discuss with patients the option of killing themselves could lose their licenses, be sued for medical malpractice, or be charged with criminal violations.
“Vermont’s Act 39 makes the state the first and only one to mandate that all licensed healthcare professionals counsel terminal patients about the availability and procedures for physician-assisted suicide, and refer them to willing prescribers to dispense the death-dealing drug,” reads a brief supporting the doctors. “Act 39 coerces professionals to counsel patients about the ‘benefits’ of assisted suicide—benefits that plaintiffs’ members do not believe exist—and in addition stands in opposition to a federal law protecting healthcare professionals who cannot participate in assisted suicide for conscientious reasons.”
The Vermont state agencies want the case dismissed.
Advocates for Vermont’s assisted suicide law say not informing patients about physician-assisted suicide denies them a legal right and enables doctors to “impose their personal ethics and values on their patients,” Linda Waite-Simpson, Vermont’s director of assisted-suicide advocacy group Compassion & Care, said in a statement.
Act 39 supporters also say the law does not require doctors to counsel patients on physician-assisted suicide or refer them to a doctor who will prescribe fatal medication. Instead, they argue, it is the state’s Patient Bill of Rights that requires doctors to inform patients of all their “end-of-life options.”
Aden disagrees: “Act 39 explicitly incorporates the Patient Bill of Rights and those requirements include the fact that patients have the right to be informed of all options.”
Vermont is one of six states with legal physician-assisted suicide. Although the language in Vermont clearly requires doctors to counsel and refer patients regarding assisted suicide, other state laws are subject to interpretation, according to Aden. The Vermont case may have ramifications for other states passing physician-assisted suicide laws. ADF is watching officials in other states to see how they interpret their laws, Aden said.
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