In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called “assisted suicide” or “right to die” initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.
The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Maynard chose Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon is one of just a few other states to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.
In 2013, Vermont passed the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act, a law that is very similar to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (DWDA). With its passage, Vermont became the third state (after Oregon and Washington) to enact a death with dignity law, and the first state to pass the law through legislation rather than by a voter-approved ballot initiative. The Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act went into effect immediately after receiving the governor’s signature on May 20, 2013.
Between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2019 (the latest period for which statistics are available), 34 people received prescriptions under the act and 28 used them to die. (For additional statistics, see the 2020 Patient Choice Legislative Report published by the Vermont Department of Health.)
This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the requirements for obtaining a prescription for life-ending medication under Vermont’s law.
“Death with dignity” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as “assisted suicide” or “physician assisted suicide.” However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term “suicide” doesn’t apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, Vermont’s Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act specifically states that terminating one’s life under the law is not suicide. (18 Vermont Statutes Annotated § 5292 (2021).)
Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term “suicide” to describe a terminally ill patient’s choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase “aid in dying” is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.
You may also see the phrase “right to die” used in place of “death with dignity.” However, “right to die” is more accurately used in the context of directing one’s own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a Vermont advance health care directive. (See the end of this article for more information.)
To request a prescription for life-ending medication in Vermont, the patient must be:
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
To use the medication, the patient must be able to take it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers lethal medication may face criminal charges.
Significant portions of Vermont's law were set to be repealed in 2016, but in May 2015, the Vermont legislature passed a law canceling the repeal. This means Vermont's Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act will stand as originally written.
To read the law, see 18 Vermont Statutes Annotated §§ 5281 and following.
For more details about Vermont’s Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act, see the extensive list of Frequently Asked Questions and other Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act Resources on the website of the Vermont Department of Health.
To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.
Updated January 14, 2021