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February 07, 2013

Death-Rithmetic: The Vote Count on Physician-Assisted Suicide

So's the Senate gonna pass a bill next week letting terminally ill Vermonters end their own lives?

That's a damn good question! 

Thankfully for you, Seven Days has been trolling the halls of the Statehouse haranguing your state senators, trying to figure out where they stand.

Our vote count right now? We think 12.75 senators are ready to back the bill — called 'death with dignity' by supporters and 'physician-assisted suicide' by opponents — and 13.25 are against it. Another four senators in the 30-member body are firmly undecided.

And then there's Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, an opponent of the bill, who would break a tie. So that means supporters need to get a solid 16 votes, while opponents need just 15 nay-sayers. With a test vote slated for next Wednesday and a final vote likely to fall on Thursday, that gives advocates on either side of the issue less than a week to lobby their hearts out.

So who are the persuadables? 

Let's start with that fraction:

FrenchSen. Eldred French (D-Rutland) — French, an ex-House member from Shrewsbury who was appointed to his seat last month by Gov. Peter Shumlin, has been on most lobbyists' lists as an undecided. But when we caught up with him Thursday afternoon, he said, "I'm leaning toward supporting the bill. If I had to vote today, I'd support the bill."

Why's that?

"I believe it's a good choice for people to have — people who are in those extreme circumstances," he said. "These are people who are close to death."

Though he was appointed by a governor who backs the bill, French hails from one of the more socially conservative counties in the state. His Democratic predecessor in the seat, former senator Bill Carris, opposed it — as do his two Republican district-mates.

One argument in favor of the bill? "It doesn't make anybody do anything they don't want to do, which is unlike many of the laws that we pass up here that get far less public scrutiny," French said.

We're calling him .75 in favor.

Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) — Like French, Rodgers recently replaced a senator opposed to the bill — in his case, former Republican senator Vince Illuzzi. And he shares a more conservative Northeast Kingdom district with another opponent, Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans).

That said, Rodgers told us, "I'm still on the fence."

When's he gonna make up his mind?

"I'm getting just tons of constituent contacts from people on both sides of the issue, and I've promised my constituents that I'm not going to make a decision until I've heard all the testimony I'm going to hear in the floor debate," Rodgers said. "I'm probably not going to be sure of my position until they call my name."

Rodgers said he finds it particularly important to vote with his district on social issues, "which in this case is extremely tough because I've had so many contacts from people on both sides."

Galbraith2Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) — Unlike Rodgers, Galbraith said he's less concerned with the way his district swings than the way his conscience does.

"Most of the people who've been in touch with me have been opposed to it," the Townshend resident said. "But I'm guessing that probably most of my constituents would support it. It is probably the most liberal county in the state."

Wouldn't that make it hard to vote against the bill?

"I'm elected to apply my judgment to each of the issues we face and I think that's particularly true of an issue of this character," Galbraith said.

The second-term senator says he has "reservations about physicians and the state being involved in suicide. I'm concerned that the diagnosis of six months to live is far from certain."

"On the other hand," he said, "I recognize the desire of people at the end of their life — when they're seriously ill — to be able to control their own destiny."

Sen. Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington) — Hartwell too says he's less concerned about putting his finger on the pulse of Bennington County. 

"There's a lot of opposition, but then again there's a lot of support. I'm getting it from both sides," the Manchester Center Dem said. "I don't know whether it's even or leans one way or the other, and I'm not going to do polling to determine this issue. I don't care about the polls." 

What does he care about?

"The application of the law and what the moral and fair thing is to do," he said.

As for when he'll make up his mind, Hartwell said, "I'm still thinking about it, so I'll probably continue doing so 'til the end."

CollinsSen. Don Collins (D-Franklin) — Collins, a Swanton Democrat, called himself "open-minded" on the bill Wednesday afternoon. He said he was mostly concerned about what he called "technical issues," like whether a patient's death certificate notes that it was by suicide or by the underlying disease from which he or she suffers.

"But the whole idea — the concept that people make their own decisions about these things — is a belief I have about a lot of things, that people should have the right to take and decide many things, including how they may leave this Earth," Collins said. "But I don't want to say I'm going to support a bill that puts people in an awkward situation."

In summary, he said, "Right now I'm coming closer to a decision, but I will vote against this bill if some of these things don't get resolved."

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