Compassion & Choices Legal Advocacy successfully intervened in a challenge to Vermont’s law authorizing medical aid in dying and continues to protect similar laws around the nation.
In 2013, Vermont passed the Patient Choice at End of Life Law (“Act 39”), legalizing medical aid in dying for Vermont residents. The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, Inc., and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, Inc. (“Plaintiffs”), filed a Complaint with the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, alleging that the Act violates free speech rights, as it “forces” physicians to counsel patients regarding medical aid in dying. However, the Act actually does allow physicians to refuse to counsel their patients regarding this service — if they refuse to counsel, they must refer the patient to another physician who is willing to do so. Plaintiffs argue that even this is in violation of free speech.
On September 25, 2016, William Hoser, Chair of the Vermont Board of Medical Practice, et al. (“Defendants”), moved the court to dismiss the matter due to the fact that, despite the contents of Plaintiffs’ Complaint, the Act does not force any “physician, nurse, pharmacist, or other person” to participate in providing a prescription for medical aid in dying. There are a number of protections in place to ensure that no one is forced to participate in the practice, including but not limited to prohibiting healthcare facilities and providers from punishing a physician, nurse, pharmacist, etc., who refuses to participate in medical aid in dying.
On November 7, 2016, Monica van de Ven and Benedict Underhill, Vermont residents and proposed medical aid in dying patients, Compassion & Choices, and Patient Choices Vermont (“Movants”) filed a Motion to Intervene, arguing against Plaintiffs and in favor of Act 39. Movants were granted Defendants-Intervenors status by the court.
On May 5, 2017, a Consent Agreement and Stipulation was filed with the court, wherein Plaintiffs and Defendants agreed how they would interpret the Patient Choices at End of Life Act. Defendants and Plaintiffs further agreed that “all state-owned web sites that describe a medical professional’s obligations with respect to” the Act would be revised to reflect the agreement, and that Plaintiffs could not seek appeal.
Disagreeing with the contents of the Agreement, Defendants-Intervenors filed Notice of Appeal, bringing the matter to the United States District Court. Defendants-Intervenors then filed a Motion to Strike on August 23, 2017, stating they were not informed of the Agreement prior to filing, and arguing that they objected to the Agreement, as it would adversely impact the residents of Vermont and their ability to access medical aid in dying due to the narrow interpretation of the language in the Act, and that the Agreement should be struck from the court’s record.
On December 18, 2017, the Court filed its Order on Defendant-Intervenors’ Motion to Strike, declining Defendants-Intervenors’ Motion to strike but clarifying that the agreement was not the Court’s interpretation of Act 39. While Compassion & Choices still disagrees with the contents of the Agreement, we are thoroughly relieved that the court has ruled that the Agreement is not the official interpretation of the Act, and we will continue to fight attempts to limit the access to information about medical aid in dying.