In a farewell address Wednesday, outgoing Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin revealed that his father took advantage of the state’s end-of-life law, just a year after Shumlin signed the measure.

Shumlin’s father, George, died in April 2014 at 88. In a statement at the time, the governor did not mention that his father had chosen to end his own life, although he said “that his decline was brief,” according to the Burlington Free Press.

In his speech Wednesday, as the governor rolled through a list of accomplishments from his six years as governor, he highlighted in general terms the end-of-life law: “Terminally ill patients can now make their end of life choices as they should be able to,” the Democratic governor said.


But then, straying from his prepared speech, he disclosed his father’s choice.

“In my wildest dreams when I signed that bill, I never thought that my own dad, who was suffering from a miserable terminal cancer, would be able to die with dignity in his own state, so thank you,” Shumlin said.

Vermont’s law permits people with terminal illnesses to obtain lethal doses of medication, with the goal of allowing them to end their suffering on their own terms. Supporters of such policies call them death-with-dignity laws, and they are sometimes referred to as assisted suicide policies.

Vermont was the first state to approve an end-of-life law through the statehouse, according to the advocacy group Death With Dignity. Washington and Oregon already had policies on the books, but those were approved through ballot measures. An end-of-life policy also existed in Montana, but that was granted through a state Supreme Court decision in 2009 and no state law sanctions it.

California and Colorado have since instituted end-of-life laws. Opponents have challenged some of the laws in court.

Linda Waite-Simpson, a former state lawmaker, said Shumlin had privately said that he was grateful for the law, in part because he had family members who were sick. But Waite-Simpson, who is now the Vermont state director of the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, said Shumlin did not talk a lot about his family, so his announcement Wednesday came as a surprise to most people.

The end-of-life law is not available or appropriate for everyone, Waite-Simpson said, but Shumlin’s disclosure could help encourage people to have an open discussion with their physician about their options and provide some assurance to physicians who are still uncomfortable being able to prescribe lethal doses of medication.

“The whole point of this is to normalize it and have it as an accessible option” when appropriate, she said. “The more people that step forward and talk about their positive experiences with the law, the more it gives the general public a better picture of the law.”

After his speech Wednesday, Shumlin told the publication Seven Days that his father was dying slowly of esophageal cancer and that his decision to end his life saved him from weeks of suffering.

“He turned to his family when it got pretty advanced and said that he wanted to go out with dignity and so we honored his wish,” he said.

Shumlin added: “It was a very peaceful and beautiful end to a very productive life.”

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  • It is almost impossible for me to believe that a Governor leaving office would brag about one of his state’s citizens committing suicide because of his actions as governor, in this case his own father. Good riddance Governor Shumlin!

    • Have you ever seen anyone die of esphogeal cancer? I have. I’d shoot myself first so yes, being able to die with dignity in that situation and able to avoid unredemptive pain and serious suffering is a good thing.
      By the way, the governor was not boasting.

    • If you lost control or knew that you would lose control over your ability to walk, use the bathroom, feed yourself, and conduct every other task you have been doing for X amount of years, you may feel differently. Throw in extreme, deep pain that is nearly impossible to manage without giving you medication that makes you hallucinate and itch. Also consider your loved ones, and a bunch of random strangers in the hospital watching you go through this deeply personal and horrible time. If you truly could see that as the next, and final, few months of your life, you may feel very differently about this.

    • When a politician recites a list of his accomplishments, as Shumlin did in his farewell speech, and includes legalized assisted suicide among those accomplishments, then references his father’s death to support his assertion that this was a good thing he and the legislature did for the people of VT, it sure sounds like bragging to me. And citing disability and being unable to do everything for oneself as justification for a doctor’s helping a person kill himself is extremely denigrating of people whose lives are not diminished one bit by their disability and their need to accept help with daily activities. Many of them are pretty sick of non-disabled people judging their lives to be not worth living.

  • Shumlin mentioned his parents in a talk he gave to introduce a showing of the film, “How to Die in Oregon”, back when he was campaigning for the legalization of assisted suicide (AS) in VT. I remember the comment well, because if one of my children suggested that AS might be in my best interest some day, I would interpret that as a suggestion. Even the most subtle of pressures, perhaps even inadvertent, can push a person facing a need for care to make a choice that is not truly free.

    • The pressure goes both ways, as any oncologist or hospice nurse can tell you. Patients are pressured all the time to “not give up” and accept useless treatments that rob them of precious quality of life in their final days. It’s human nature to want to hold on to someone.
      Medical social workers are trained to help patients determine what *they* want and to stand up to these kinds of pressures from family and medical personnel. I advise anyone in this situation to request a referral. Every hospital has them on staff.

  • This should not be a process that is normalized nor promoted by the medical community. As someone who has had MS for over 40 years and a couple of other medical issues that were resolved, I understand the concern of being a burden or experiencing unremitting pain.

    There is a flip side to the issue though. I have had a caring supportive husband during mu Christmas of this time. I have also dealt with misperceptions to how awful my life must be due to a disability. I fear those who have negative attitudes to disability, or family members who do not want to provide care, or worse, are looking for a way out or inheritance will encourage people to give into this. Particularly if there is abuse in the family dynamic.

    • MS and a true end stage, terminal diagnosis are two very, very different things. I do agree that society has a misunderstanding about what MS is and entails, however, to compare that with an end stage disease seems to be a bit of a stretch. Their is no denying that living with chronic illness is extremely challenging, and taxing. In fact, those with chronic illnesses know what it is like to lose control over their own bodies. So to think we can offer someone with a certified terminal prognosis 1 last bout of control is truly a gift.

  • The unsolvable problem of physician-assisted suicide is that innocent people lose their lives. About 15% of people diagnosed as terminally ill outlive their six months of being terminal. Thousands of people “graduate”from hospice every year. Valerie Harper was given three months to live in early 2013, she’s still alive. When people are reported to request assisted suicide because they feel like a burden (48% in Oregon last year) or feel that people do not respect them (75% last year), that’s not a free choice. When there is no witness required at the death, and everyone involved is granted immunity, abusive family and caregivers feel emboldened to take lethal action with no consequences. See

    • Most of those people who “graduate” from hospice were signed up for hospice services inappropriately in the first place. Hospice is a poorly regulated industry (that is currently changing…slowly) and many for profit hospices are hungry to up their census. That includes them signing up individuals with inappropriate diagnosis and telling families that hospice is for “help” versus “pain management and death”. I am fortunate to work in healthcare and be very educated in this industry. It is a ruthless one, don’t be fooled.

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