Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Vermont Requirement to Counsel Patients on Assisted Suicide

Photo Credit: George Hodan

BURLINGTON, Vt. — A federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has dismissed a lawsuit from two medical groups that challenged language in Vermont’s assisted suicide law that they believe requires physicians to counsel patients about ending their lives.

“The court concludes that Plaintiffs lack jurisdictional standing to challenge the constitutionality of Act 39 in the absence of any likelihood of imminent harm. The case is not ripe in the sense that no enforcement action is pending now or is likely to be brought in the future,” U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford wrote in his decision.

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, last July, a number of doctors who are concerned about their oath to “do no harm” have filed a legal challenge against the requirement, including members of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Tennessee-based Christian Medical and Dental Association.

“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 read.

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But attorneys for the State moved for dismissal of the complaint, citing a lack of subject matter jurisdiction and the failure to state a claim requiring relief.

On Wednesday, Crawford agreed, stating that there are no examples of enforcement with which to judge the matter.

“In the absence of an actual enforcement action, the court is left to speculate about how a member of Plaintiffs’ organizations might respond to an inquiry from a terminally-ill patient, and whether that response might precipitate a disciplinary hearing,” he said.

“Plaintiffs offer no specific allegations that their members have been required to perform actions which violate their religious conscience,” Crawford wrote.

The religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) says that it is considering an appeal.

“Vermont health care workers just want to act consistently with their reasonable and time-honored convictions without fear of government punishment,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steven Aden. “Because we believe they face a very real conflict in this situation, our clients are seriously considering all of their legal options.”

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