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Vt. panel OK's bill on aided suicide

Measure's fate seen as uncertain

MONTPELIER -- A key House committee recommended late yesterday the adoption of a law that would permit terminally ill patients to end their lives with the assistance of a physician.

The House Human Services Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the legislation. The panel has spent a week hearing from witnesses and deliberating a proposal variously referred to as physician-assisted suicide by opponents or death with dignity and patient choice at end of life by supporters.

Committee leaders reasoned that lawmakers could use their appearances at town meetings to hear constituents' views on the proposal.

The bill would permit someone with a terminal diagnosis and a prognosis of six months or less to live to request a prescription that would end his or her life. A number of steps that supporters said would be safeguards were included in the bill to ensure that someone was not pressured into the option.

But there were no safeguards that could adequately satisfy some opponents.

Representative Anne B. Donahue, Republican of Northfield, said society now states unequivocally through laws and societal norms that every life is valuable. "Do we want to make that message conditional based on circumstances?" she asked. "There's so much more that we could be doing." She mentioned strengthening the state's hospice and palliative care as possible examples.

Another opponent of the bill, Representative Norman H. McAllister, Republican of Highgate, suggested that the proposal deserved to be decided not just by legislators, but also by the people. McAllister proposed that the law not go into effect unless voters approved it at the general election in 2008.

But the majority of the committee said legislators were elected to make even such difficult life-and-death decisions. "The ultimate comes in November, and I'm satisfied with that," said Representative Michael Fisher, Democrat of Lincoln, referring to elections.

Even with the Human Services Committee's approval of the bill, it still has a long way to go. The Judiciary Committee must consider it, too, and it must go through the Senate. Governor Jim Douglas said yesterday that he doesn't support it and doesn't expect to change his mind.

"I feel very strongly," he said.