By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Vermont is poised to become the third U.S. state to allow doctor-assisted suicide, after its legislature passed a bill allowing physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients.
The bill passed late on Monday, and the governor has pledged to sign it into law.
Oregon and Washington state have legalized doctor-assisted suicide in voter referendums.
Vermont's measure includes a number of safeguards. Both the patient's primary physician and a consulting doctor must agree the patient is suffering from a terminal illness and is capable of making an informed decision to request death-inducing drugs. It also requires the patient to request the drugs twice, with 15 days separating the first and second requests.
The patients must administer the drugs to themselves.
"I am grateful that the legislature had such a thoughtful, respectful debate on this deeply personal issue," said Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. "We will now offer Vermonters who face terminal illness at the end of life a choice to control their destiny and avoid unnecessary suffering. I believe this is the right thing to do."
Shumlin plans to sign the bill into law after the text is reviewed, spokeswoman Susan Allen said on Tuesday.
Vermont's bill would only allow doctors in the state to prescribe fatal doses of drugs to Vermont residents. It would require the request for drugs to be witnessed by two disinterested people, defined as those who are not relatives or potential heirs, employees of health care facilities where the patient is being treated, nor his or her doctor.
The bill noted that since Oregon legalized suicide in 1998, some 1,050 patients have requested drugs to hasten death, and of those, 673 have taken their lives.
Similar bills to legalize physician-assisted suicide have been introduced in seven U.S. states: Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire and New Jersey, according to the Death with Dignity National Center. Bills that would specifically ban the practice have been introduced in Connecticut and Montana.
Advocates of assisted suicide say the practice can save patients of painful terminal illnesses, such as bone cancer, years of suffering. Opponents warn that measures allowing it may encourage people to take their own lives at the behest of potential heirs or because they fear they are imposing a burden on family.
Proponents of the bill, who had spent about a decade lobbying for the measure, applauded its passage.
"This is an historic day for the end of life choice movement," said Dick Walters, president of advocacy group Patient Choices at End of Life. "This is an important step for champions of terminally ill patient autonomy rights."
Opponents called the move a dangerous one, noting that it only requires disinterested witnesses at the time of the request but not at the time of death, when the prescription would be administered.
"The opportunity is created for the patient's heir, or for another person who will benefit financially from the patient's death, to administer the lethal dose to the patient without his consent," said Margaret Dore of True Dignity Vermont.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Lisa Von Ahn)