By Richard “Chuck” Woodhouse, JD, and Caldwell Law Sage emeritus.
Early in March 2023, an article appearing in the Boston Globe recounted the story of a Massachusetts man, while being treated as a hospice patient, expressed a desire to end his life. While he was kept free of pain with drugs, he complained about the lack of an acceptable quality of life as a reason for his wish to end his life. He was forced to refuse water and food as a means of dying because he lived in Massachusetts where the statute known as the “Massachusetts End of Life Options Act” has been proposed several times and voted on by its citizens in referendum, only to be defeated each time. A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the practice is not protected by the Massachusetts’ Constitution. The Legislature is now again considering measures that would legalize medical aid in dying.
For purposes of this piece, I will refer to the subject of this writing as “Death with Dignity” rather than the phrase used by those who oppose the practice, “Assisted Suicide”. “Medical Aid in Dying” is another common name for the process.
By ballot of the citizens of Oregon in 1994, the first law permitting death with dignity was authorized. Eleven states followed with most authorizations resulting from action of the legislature, others by ballot and the courts.
Connecticut is currently considering a similar bill for the 15th time since 1995. The debate before the Public Health Committee in Hartford is extremely contentious.
The Vermont Legislature enacted death with dignity legislation in 2013. The Vermont Statute, found in Title 18: Chapter 113: Section 5283, sets forth the procedure to be followed when a patient requests assistance in ending his life. Among other things it requires the patient have a terminal illness, be 18 years or older, and have the ability to make healthcare decisions and to consume medications. Only the patient himself can make the decision to die. It also requires numerous actions, examinations and findings by a physician etc., before the request is granted. The language is straightforward and if you are interested, I suggest you read the statute itself. Not unlike the law in several of the states in which a similar law was enacted, the Vermont law requires that the patient be a Vermont resident. Recently, a Connecticut resident, Lynda Shannon Bluestein by name, sued the State of Vermont claiming that the residency requirement violates the Constitution’s commerce, equal protection, and privileges and immunities clauses. The case was settled in her favor and legislation to delete the residency provision is now before the legislature.
And then there’s New Hampshire. Many attempts by legislators to enact a law permitting death with dignity have been made over the years. The latest attempt was the passage of a bill in February in the Senate that would establish a commission to research end-of-life choices. It is now in committee in the House with no hearings scheduled as of this writing. You may want to speculate on the reason that Vermont has been the leader in allowing the procedure, while New Hampshire has been reluctant to adopt it. In the event the referenced legislation in Vermont passes and is signed by the governor, New Hampshire residents will have easier access to the option.