Vermont doctors and health care professionals are pushing back against an interpretation of state law that they say requires them to help kill patients who wish to die.
Members of two medical groups, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and Christian Medical & Dental Associations, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against officials in two state medical agencies responsible for the interpretation.
The lawsuit says these agencies have interpreted a 2013 physician-assisted suicide law, Act 39, in a way that would require health care professionals to counsel terminally ill patients about the option to commit suicide.
Additionally, under such an interpretation of the law, if medical professionals are not willing to help patients end their lives, then they must refer them to physicians who will, the lawsuit says.
Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Steven H. Aden, who represents the medical professionals, said this reading of the law violates the First Amendment and certain aspects of Obamacare.
He said the government “shouldn’t be telling health care professionals that they must violate their medical ethics in order to practice medicine.”
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“These doctors and other health care workers deeply believe that suffering patients need understanding and sound medical treatment, not encouragement to kill themselves,” Mr. Aden said in a statement. “The state has no authority to order them to act contrary to that sincere and time-honored conviction.”
A Frequently Asked Questions page on the Vermont Department of Health’s website says Act 39, in conjunction with the Patient’s Bill of Rights, requires doctors to inform patients about their right to kill themselves.
“Do doctors have to tell patients about this option?” it reads. “Under Act 39 and the Patient’s Bill of Rights, a patient has the right to be informed of all options for care and treatment in order to make a fully-informed choice.”
The Patient’s Bill of Rights requires doctors to notify patients of “all options” with regard to palliative care.
Mr. Aden said the agencies have adopted an extreme interpretation of what “palliative care” entails, saying his plaintiffs “generally support” providing care to suffering patients.
“I mean, that’s pain relief, management of end-of-life care — good things,” he said. “But they read that in conjunction with the Act 39 to require ‘all options’ for assisted suicide be counseled for.”
George Eighmey, president of the assisted-suicide advocacy group Death with Dignity, which helped draft Act 39, called the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.”
He said Act 39 does not mandate counsel or referral for physician-assisted suicide, and the lawsuit’s real complaint lies with the Patient’s Bill of Rights. He suggested Act 39 was lumped into the complaint for political purposes.
“The Patient Bill of Rights specifically says that a patient has the option and that physicians must inform them of all of their end-of-life options,” Mr. Eighmey said. “Now, if they choose to make that a referral under the Patient Bill of Rights, that’s a different story. And if they want to go after the Patient Bill of Rights, that’s their right to do that. But they’re not — they’re going after the Death with Dignity law, which does not mandate the referral.”
Linda Waite-Simpson, Vermont director for Compassion & Care and a former Democratic member of the state House of Representatives, concurred that Act 39 does not require physicians to refer patients to doctors who will perform physician-assisted suicide.
“But physicians should not impose their personal ethics and values on their patients and deny their legal right in Vermont to receive information about their end-of-life care options so they can make an informed decision about their treatment options,” Ms. Waite-Simpson said in a statement.
Several officials from the Vermont Board of Medical Practice and the Office of Professional Regulation are named in the lawsuit. David Herlihy, director of the former, said he had not seen the lawsuit and accordingly declined to comment. The latter agency could not be reached for comment before press time.
Three other states — California, Oregon and Washington — legislatively permit physician-assisted suicide. None of those laws has been interpreted to require physicians or medical professionals to counsel or refer patients to doctors willing to help them commit suicide.
However, the Vermont lawsuit comes amid a “disturbing trend” of religious medical professionals being forced to violate the tenants of their faith, Mr. Aden said, pointing to lawsuits against Catholic hospitals that refuse to perform abortions.
“It is part of a disturbing trend, disregarding and even attacking individuals for conscientious beliefs,” he said. “In this case, the conscientious objection to killing a patient is under the Hippocratic Oath and goes back thousands of years.”
• Bradford Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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