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.”