WASHINGTON — Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill May 2 that makes the state the first to change its assisted-suicide law to allow terminally ill nonresidents to make use of it.
Oregon dropped the residency requirement of its assisted-suicide law through a court settlement last year.
Vermont and Oregon are among the 10 states and the District of Columbia that allow medically-assisted suicide. The other states are Washington, Montana, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Maine.
Oregon voters passed assisted-suicide legislation in 1994 but it was stalled in lawsuits and not enacted until 1997. Vermont was the first state to pass this law through the legislative process, in 2013.
Just before Vermont removed the assisted-suicide residency requirement, state officials reached a settlement with a Connecticut woman with terminal cancer to enable her to come to the state for lethal medication if she complied with other aspects of the state law.
She and her doctor had sued Vermont last year claiming its residency mandate for the assisted-suicide law violated the commerce, equal protection, and privileges and immunities clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
In March, when state legislators discussed removing the state residency requirement, Mary Hahn Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, voiced her objection.
In testimony before a legislative committee, she pointed out that the law “remains a matter of contention” as it did when the state passed it in 2013, and she added that there “continue to be legitimate and serious concerns” about it.
“To be clear,” she said: “Vermont Right to Life opposed the underlying concept behind assisted suicide and opposes the move to remove the residency requirement as there are still no safeguards that protect vulnerable patients from coercion.”
Beerworth said if the state were to drop its residency requirement, she wondered what liability the state could incur if the drugs failed to end a patient’s life. She also wondered what would happen if a patient took the lethal dosage back to their home state but didn’t use the drugs.
While supporters of the new Vermont law viewed it as a positive step, enabling people to receive the treatment they wanted where it is available, opponents cautioned that it could make the state a “death tourism” spot.
The Diocese of Burlington has the U.S. bishops’ 2011 statement on physician-assisted suicide, “Live Each Day with Dignity,” posted on its website.
The statement calls assisted suicide “a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent.”
It notes that the worst suffering for the terminally ill is “often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness” and the “realization that others — or society as a whole — see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify this kind of suffering.”
The bishops’ statement also urges Catholics to be “leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has the right to live with dignity through every day of our lives,” and says the claim that “drugs can substitute for these efforts is an affront to patients, caregivers, and the ideals of medicine.”
The Diocese of Burlington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.