Groundbreaking legislation legalizing physician-assisted suicide just passed both branches of the Vermont State Congress.

The bill, entitled, "The Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act," will automatically go into effect, once Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, signs on the dotted line. His signature would officially make Vermont the first state to approve such a law through the legislative process. Oregon and Washington have had similar legislation for years; however, both of their laws were passed via public referendum.

Physician-assisted suicide (also dubbed, "death-with-dignity") laws allow doctors to legally prescribe lethal prescription drugs to people with are near death. These rulings also provide protection for friends and family members who support a dying individual's choice.

For more than a decade the Vermont's version of a death-with-dignity law has been under construction; traveling back and forth between the state's House and Senate several times and undergoing multiple revisions.

The final iteration of the bill closely mirrors the one passed in Oregon over 15 years ago. Here are a few of the key provisions in Vermont's bill:

A person applying for a deadly dose of medication must:

  • Have a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less
  • Undergo a complete examination of their current and past health status
  • Be deemed capable of making a decision
  • Be able to take the medication themselves

Also included in the bill are specific protections for anyone who is present when a terminally ill individual consumes doctor-prescribed life-ending medication.

Should physician-assisted suicide be legal?

This question has been debated for years, with equally-impassioned advocates falling on both sides of the debate.

Those who support such legislation argue that every person should have the right to decide for themselves when they want to die. Those who oppose it paint horrifying pictures of people coerced into ending their own lives, either by ill-intentioned family members, or a government seeking to rid itself of the people putting the greatest amount of financial strain on America's over-burdened healthcare system. Religion adds further fuel to dissenters, many of whom feel that suicide is a sinful act.

So strong are the concerns associated with death-with-dignity legislation, that each of the three bills that have passed includes a clause requiring their respective state Health Departments to conduct regular reviews of the initiative, collecting data and monitoring any potential abuses.

The statistics compiled thus far indicate that fears of an epidemic of forced suicide may be misplaced.

In their 2012 statement, the Oregon Health Department reported that only 77 people sought to end their lives early via the state's Death with Dignity Act. This means that, overall, the legislation accounted for approximately .2 percent of all deaths in the state for that year.

Among the most common reasons these Oregonians cited for ending their lives early were: loss of autonomy (93%), decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (92%), and loss of dignity (78%).

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And the death-with-dignity movement appears to be gaining ground rather than petering out. Over the past two years, no less than eight states (Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Montana, Massachusetts, Kansas, Hawaii and Connecticut) have all introduced physician-assisted suicide bills into the legislature. However, both Connecticut and Montana also considered bills that would make it illegal for doctors to purposefully quicken their patient's dying process.

More than anyone else, family caregivers are intimately familiar with the crushing decisions that surround end-of-life care for elders. Yet, they are also a community that remains divided on the ethical, moral and practical implications of legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

Many caregivers champion the benefits of hospice care, which emphasizes the management of mental, physical and emotional pain during an elder's final months, as opposed to aggressive medical treatment. But, while hospice does offer a measure of choice to dying elders and their families, for some, it is still not enough. (See: Are Dying Seniors Getting the Care They Need?)

One caregiver asks, "Why are people allowed to suffer and animals are allowed to go in peace?" while another writes, "Can you actually help someone die with dignity?"

What do you think? Do death-with-dignity laws do more harm than good? Or, do they provide desperate elders with one final option for exercising their independence?