Medical Groups Sue Over Vermont Requirement to Counsel Patients on Assisted Suicide

Hospital-compressedBURLINGTON, Vt. — Two medical groups have filed a federal lawsuit to challenge language in the Vermont’s assisted suicide law that they believe requires physicians to counsel patients about ending their lives.

The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and Tennessee-based Christian Medical and Dental Association were represented in the suit on Tuesday, along with several doctors in the state who are concerned about how the government interprets the “Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act,” also known as Act 39.

As previously reported, in 2013, Democratic Gov. Peter Schumlin signed legislation legalizing assisted suicide, making the state the fourth in the nation to allow terminally ill patients to be granted the “right to die.”

After the bill was made law, the Vermont Department of Health outlined that a section of the text requiring that a patient receive “all available options related to terminal care” means that doctors must counsel patients on assisted suicide or provide referrals to other physicians who will do so.

“Do doctors have to tell patients about this option? 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. If a doctor is unwilling to inform a patient, he or she must make a referral or otherwise arrange for the patient to receive all relevant information,” the department outlined in a FAQ on the matter.

Therefore, a number of doctors who are concerned about their oath to “do no harm” have now filed a legal challenge against the requirement, including Drs. Rachel DiSanto and Dr. Brian Kilpatrick, as well as hospice nurse Lynn Caulfield.

“This is nothing but the redefinition of ‘palliative care’ to mean providing assisted suicide, an intolerable position for Plaintiffs and other conscientious physicians and healthcare professionals,” the legal complaint reads.

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“Plaintiffs, state and national associations of conscientious healthcare professionals whose personal and professional ethics oppose the practice of assisted suicide, bring this action on behalf of their members against the operation of Act 39 to force them to counsel and/or refer for the practice,” it outlines.

The groups and physicians are seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the law, as well as declaratory judgment that the state’s interpretation of the law violates the U.S. Constitution.

“The government shouldn’t be telling health care professionals that they must violate their medical ethics in order to practice medicine,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Steven Aden said in a statement announcing the suit. “These doctors and other health care workers deeply believe that suffering patients need understanding and sound medical treatment, not encouragement to kill themselves. The state has no authority to order them to act contrary to that sincere and time-honored conviction.”

The assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices Vermont told the outlet Seven Days that they support the requirement.

“Physicians should not impose their personal ethics and values on their patients and deny their legal right in Vermont to receive information about all of their end-of-life care options so they can make an informed decision about their treatment options,” Director Linda Waite-Simpson stated.

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