Signs of Hope in Western States

03/04/2011 01:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Historically, end-of-life choice has suffered at the hands of politicians. The people's simple yearning for freedom and control at the end of life has been no match for the heavy-handed political power of long-established religious and medical lobbying institutions. In statehouse after statehouse, aid in dying fell to Catholic bishops' threats of shunning and excommunication, and the American Medical Association's power to grant and withhold political favors.

Even the Oregon legislature defied the popular will in 1997 and put a repeal of the voter-approved Death with Dignity Act on the ballot. Voters reaffirmed the law 60/40% that November and Oregon's politicians have refrained from tampering with it ever since.

Now lawmakers in other states seem to be getting the same message: The people want and deserve something to say about how they might meet an imminent, inevitable death from terminal illness. This legislative season has seen the tide shift.

In Washington State SB 5378, attacking the state's Death with Dignity Act (DWDA), failed to pass out of committee. Politicians seem to lack interest in challenging the will of nearly 60% of the voters, so the bill was never scheduled for a hearing and never made it out of the gate to begin the long legislative process.

SB 5378 would have repealed a crucial portion of the DWDA by labeling deaths under it as "suicide." In fact, the bill was a thinly veiled attempt to identify people who used the DWDA and expose participating physicians. It would have made it possible for anti-choice extremists to intimidate physicians and harass grieving families and would have set the stage for hostile demonstrations at burials and memorial services, and placards and pickets at physician offices. Good riddance to that bad bill.

Montana senators also decided not to mess with that state's court-sanctioned aid in dying. The senate judiciary committee considered three bills. One would have overturned the Montana Supreme Court decision. One would have undermined its ruling and a third would have strengthened the ruling and gone further to protect physicians. Senators of both parties heard from thousands of constituents that government should stay out of the patient-physician relationship and private end-of-life decisions.

So they did. When asked to over-ride the committee, the full senate voted overwhelmingly to stay out as well. Now it's up to the medical community to conform to the court's guidelines and mature the standard of care for aid in dying in Montana. This is as it should be, and as it is for every other end-of-life decision. One Montana senator noted that disconnecting a ventilator is just as crucial in deciding the time and manner of death, and government stays out of that decision --- with no adverse consequences.

For the second year Wyoming lawmakers buried HB 148, which would create the crime of providing medical care "intended to cause death." Such a bill would establish a thought crime, since no one can know what is in mind of the doctor as she advances morphine in the face of extreme suffering, or disconnects a ventilator or other life sustaining therapy. Declining or withdrawing a feeding tube was a particular target of this bill. Good riddance to that very bad bill.

It's too early to say elected officials are becoming more responsive to their constituents than to powerful lobbying power in these matters. Vermont lawmakers may soon hold hearings on an Oregon-style Death with Dignity bill. Its passage would certainly be a most positive development. May the politicians of Vermont find courage and leadership in the recent actions of their colleagues in Washington, Montana and Wyoming.