Vermont Medical Society Shifts End-Of-Life Policy

The Vermont Medical Society has dropped its opposition to the state's "death with dignity" law.

At the group's annual meeting this month the members adopted a resolution that says doctors have a right to decide if they should assist their patients in ending their lives.

The Vermont Medical Society represents many of  the state's physicians and it opposed the state's aid-in-dying law when it was being debated in the Statehouse.

And the organization never updated its official policy on end-of-life care after the law passed in 2013.

Vermont Medical Society President Trey Dobson says the new policy recognizes that doctors have the legal right to help a patient end his or her life, and that the society is committed to supporting physicians when they're considering that option.

"The new policy does not create an opinion on one side, on whether or not end-of-life care should involve the use of physician-assisted-death," Dobson says. "But it does emphasize the need for a lot of resources to be given towards patients that are at the end of life."

Since the law passed Dobson says the medical society has supported doctors who helped patients end their life, but the official policy was never updated.

He says the vote at the annual meeting this month was almost unanimously in favor of ending the society's opposition to end-of-life care.

"Most doctors  went into medicine to end suffering. And with the passage of the law it allows for another way to end suffering," says Dobson. "Act 39 is controversial, but the law's here and we want to make sure that the resources are available to both the physicians and the patients to make the right decision and have the most support in that decision."

The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare opposes Vermont's  physician assisted suicide law. The group's advocacy director Guy Page says his organization supports the resolution that was adopted at the medical society annual meeting.

"The new policy does not create an opinion on one side. But it does emphasis the need for a lot of resources to be given towards patients that are at the end of life." - Dr. Trey Dobson, president Vermont Medical Society

Page says the group supports the policy change because it doesn't stress the ethics behind a doctor's decision,  but only recognizes the change in state law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication at the end of life.

"The Vermont Medical Society did not say this was an ethical option," Page says. "This merely says it's legal. Well, everyone knew that it was legal. So this, if anything, is more of a protection for those doctors who oppose assisted suicide."

The policy change makes the Vermont Medical Society the ninth state chapter of the American Medical Association to drop its opposition to medical aid-in-dying legislation.

And Vermont Medical Society executive vice president Jessa Barnard says similar discussions are taking place across the country.

"Other states are looking to states where it has been legalized to see what their medical associations are doing as they are considering taking positions on whether their states should legalize it," Barnard says. "The  American Medical Association is also in the midst of deciding whether they should update their position of opposing legal-aid-in-dying. So this has received some attention nationally as well."

Doctors in five other states and the District of Columbia are allowed to write prescriptions for patients who choose  to end  their own life.

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