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Federal Judge Dismisses Challenge to Vermont's End Of Life Law

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that challenged Vermont's "death with dignity" law that authorizes doctors to talk about end of life medication to terminally ill patients.

The lawsuit was filed last year by the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Christian Medical and Dental Association, a Tennessee-based Christian health care group.

The groups said the Vermont law violates their religious rights because it forces doctors to talk about end of care options even though they might oppose the concept on religious and ethical grounds.

The groups filed their suit in July, and in November a number of Vermont groups, including two terminally ill patients, asked U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford to dismiss the case.

On Wednesday, Crawford sided with the Vermont group.

“This federal ruling is important because it underscores the importance of putting complete information in the hands of patients so they can make informed decisions consistent with their values,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, a national advocacy organization.

In 2013, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 39, which gave doctors the authority to prescribe medicine to a terminally ill patient to end his or her life.

And the Department of Health later issued a the Patient's Bill of Rights that spells out that a patient has a right to be informed of all options.

In his ruling, Crawford found that the Bill of Rights “continue[s] to govern physicians in all aspects of their care of the terminally ill. Under these provisions, physicians must inform patients about all choices and options relevant to their medical treatment.”

“This ruling reinforces the professional obligation of doctors to have full and open discussions," said Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont. "Doctors must respond substantively to all questions, and enable patients to make fully informed decisions.”

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs said they were "exploring their legal options" following the judge's ruling.

“Vermont health care workers just want to act consistently with their reasonable and time-honored convictions without fear of government punishment,” said Steven H Aden, an attorney who argued the case in federal court. "We believe they face a very real conflict in this situation."

Vermont was the first state in the nation to pass an end of life law via legislation. Five other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.

Correction 04/07/17 This story was corrected and updated to clarify the number of states with end of life laws, and the process through which those  states passed their laws.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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