Head of Vermont Alliance for
Ethical Health Care talks with The Interim

Editor’s Note: Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg interviewed Dr. Bob Orr, president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care, for The Interim. On March 21, 2007, the Vermont Legislature rejected Bill H. 44, which if passed would have legalized assisted suicide in Vermont. The bill was defeated in the Vermont House of Representatives 82-63. This was an astounding victory, considering the fact that only a few weeks previous to the vote, it appeared certain that the bill would pass in the Democratic-dominated legislature in Vermont. Orr was one of the key people who organized the campaign to defeat the assisted suicide bill in Vermont. He will also be a speaker at the first-ever International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, “Current Issues, Future Directions,” that will be held at the Toronto Airport – Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, Nov. 30-Dec. 1. The VAEH is also a co-sponsor of the International Symposium.

The Interim: The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care effectively worked to defeat the recent bill to legalize assisted suicide in Vermont. Why was the Alliance formed and who are its members?

Dr. Bob Orr: The VAEH was organized in response to the introduction of a previous bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in Vermont. Since we recognized that such a proposal often reflects a perception of inadequate end-of-life care, our dual mission has been to promote improved end-of-life care and to oppose PAS. Most of our members are healthcare professionals (physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists) and disability rights advocates, with some right-to-life members and concerned people of faith.

TI: The recent bill to legalize assisted suicide in Vermont was based on the Oregon assisted-suicide law. What were the concerns of members of the legislature in relation to the Oregon law?

BO: Questions raised by Vermont legislators were about frequency of use and adherence to the law. Local and national proponents of PAS argued that the bill in Oregon was being used infrequently and without problems and this view was supported by prominent persons from Oregon who were imported to try to solidify this message.

TI: The response by the public to the assisted suicide bill in Vermont was very impressive. What was done to create such an effective response by the public?

BO: The VAEH tried to show both the public and the legislators the breadth of opposition among Vermonters by clearly spelling out the threat to those with disabilities and other vulnerable patients and concerns of healthcare professionals. To do this, we focused on abuses, expansions and complications that have slowly become evident in those jurisdictions where PAS and euthanasia have been legalized.

TI: Was working as a coalition more effective for opposing assisted suicide or would it have been equally effective to work as individual groups?

BO: I believe a significant strength of our approach was the unified concerns expressed by diverse constituencies. A vital part of this was the 2003 vote of the Vermont Medical Society to retain a position of opposition (by defeating a resolution to take a neutral position) followed by support for our position by a large number of professional and lay groups. I expect the same concerns could be expressed by individual groups, but I don’t think this would have been as effective in Vermont.

TI: The victory in Vermont may have been the biggest surprise this year to people involved in the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Can you describe some of the reasons that led to that incredible defeat of the assisted suicide bill in Vermont?

BO: Yes, the historical liberal polity of Vermont (and the even more liberal results of the 2006 elections) repeated annual efforts by “Death With Dignity” advocates and major out-of-state funding led many to predict that “this would be the year” that PAS passed in Vermont. An important part of our opposition was to show that this is not a “liberal/conservative” issue, but an issue that engages individuals and groups from across the political spectrum. I believe the defeat was brought about by:

1) employing a part-time lobbyist in the last three weeks before the vote who has been a spokesperson for the disability rights community and has a history of supporting “liberal” causes;
(2) repeated contacts with legislators (personal, mail, e-mail, phone) by individuals and groups;
(3) TV ads run just before the vote;
(4) information distribution (one piece at a time, three days per week) of 10 short reports of Oregon cases that did not comply with the law; and
(5) fervent prayer by people of faith.

TI: Thank you very much, Dr. Orr. I look forward to hearing your presentation at the International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

BO: Thank you.