Lynda Bluestein has terminal cancer and knows she is likely to die soon, but as of Tuesday she didn’t know if she could choose how or when and if her family, friends and dog would be with her when the time came.
The 75-year-old from Bridgeport, Connecticut, has reached a settlement with the state of Vermont that allows her to become the first non-resident to benefit from its decades-old law that allows terminally ill people to end their own lives, provided they do other aspects of the comply with the law.
“I was so relieved to hear that my case was resolved, that I can decide when the cancer has taken everything I can take from me,” said Ms. Bluestein, 75, who has fallopian tube cancer. “The importance of knowing that I will now face fewer barriers to accessing autonomy, control, and choice in making this private, sacred, and deeply personal decision about the end of my life is tremendous.”
Vermont is one of 10 states that allows medically-assisted suicide, but only one, Oregon, allows nonresidents. Ms. Bluestein’s settlement and pending legislation that would remove Vermont’s residency requirement offer a glimmer of hope to other terminally ill patients who want to control how and when they die but may not be able to cross the country.
Ms. Bluestein and Diana Barnard, a Middlebury doctor, sued Vermont last summer, alleging that its residency requirement violated the Constitution’s clauses on commerce, equal protection and privileges and immunities.
Ms. Barnard, who specializes in hospice and palliative care and has patients from neighboring New York state, which like Connecticut does not allow medically-assisted suicide, praised the settlement and urged the Vermont legislature to remove the residency requirement.
“I am grateful that Lynda now has access to medical care when dying without completely turning her final months upside down. … There’s no good reason why nonresidents shouldn’t be able to take advantage of Vermont’s Dying Medical Assistance Act, which has eased the suffering of scores of terminally ill Vermonters since it went into effect a decade ago,” Barnard said in a message Publication of Compassion & Choices, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Bluestein and Ms. Barnard and describes itself as a group that “expands options and empowers everyone to plan their life path.”
Ms Bluestein, who had three separate cancer diagnoses in a short period of time, said she knew she had to do something to ensure her death was not like that of her mother, who died in a hospital bed after a long illness. She decided that she wanted to die surrounded by her husband, children, grandchildren, wonderful neighbors, friends, and her dog.
“I wanted a death that was meaningful but didn’t last forever…until I die,” she said.
Vermont’s law, in effect since 2013, allows physicians to prescribe deadly drugs to residents of states with a terminal illness that is expected to kill them within six months. If the Democrat-led Senate approves the current law and it is signed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who supports the concept, Vermont would become the second state to allow terminally ill nonresidents to end their own lives.
A year ago, Oregon agreed to stop enforcing its residency requirement and ask the legislature to strike it out of the law as part of a settlement. Legislation is also being considered there.
Although supporters of Vermont’s law are optimistic that it will pass, medically-assisted suicide has its opponents. Among them is Mary Hahn Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, who said the practice “has been and remains controversial.”
“To be clear, Vermont Right to Life rejected the underlying concept of assisted suicide and resisted the move to eliminate the residency requirement because there are still no safeguards in place to protect vulnerable patients from coercion,” Ms. Beerworth said before a Legislative Committee in Vermont. She said as the legislation moves forward, she has a number of concerns, including the liability Vermont could incur if the drugs don’t end a patient’s life.
David Englander, senior policy and legal adviser to the state Department of Health, said no complaints about Vermont’s application of the law have been reported to the department or the attorney general’s office.
Supporters of Vermont’s medically-assisted suicide law also say it contains strict safety precautions, including a requirement that those who wish to use it must be able to make and communicate their health decision to a doctor. Patients must make two oral applications to the doctor within a specified period of time and then submit a written application, which they sign in the presence of two or more witnesses who are not interested parties. Witnesses must sign and confirm that the patients appear to have understood the nature of the document and were free from coercion or undue influence at the time.
Ms. Bluestein, a lifelong activist, has pushed for euthanasia legislation to be passed in New York and her home state of Connecticut, where the Legislature is considering such legislation. She decided to consider Vermont as an option when a friend with cancer moved there to settle down so she could take advantage of the euthanasia law. That friend died last year surrounded by her husband, son and daughter, Ms Bluestein said.
“One thing that surprised me when I received this latest incurable diagnosis is how hard it is to die the way you want to die,” Ms Bluestein said. “It seems everyone has an opinion on what should and shouldn’t be allowed in my one personal, private and very sacred moment of death.”
“There are people who say no, you have to suffer. It is very important that you wait until God decides it is time for you to die. But that’s not my belief. That’s not what I want and that’s not what I believe,” she said.
Ms Bluestein, who previously battled breast cancer and melanoma, is undergoing chemotherapy for her late-stage tubal cancer. Over Thanksgiving, she told her children and grandchildren that she will likely die this year.
“I want to live the way I’ve always done it, and I want my death to be the way I’ve always wanted it to be,” she said. “I wanted the freedom to choose when cancer took so much away from me that I couldn’t take it anymore. This is my choice.”
If you suffer from stress and isolation or have trouble coping with it, The Samaritans offers support. You can speak to someone confidentially free of charge by phone on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or by email [email protected]or visit the Samaritans website for details of your nearest branch.
If you are a US resident and you or someone you know needs mental health help right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a hotline near you.