One of the last chores I got around to after acceptance to law school was locating an apartment. Not really caring, since I knew it was a temporary arrangement, I settled into one that was below ground level. The view from the back window was obscured by an embankment about 15 yards away. On my first night in the apartment, the sound of a distant train whistle grew into a rumble that shook the building. That embankment, to my surprise, supported a set of train tracks that I hadn't seen when I first looked out the window. Thereafter the late night sound of a distant train whistle would mean my personal space was about to be shaken to the core.

Although the statehouse halls are quiet now, I can hear the distant sound of a train whistle. Proponents call it "Death With Dignity," a term designed to sugar-coat a purposeful termination of life. Opponents call it "Physician-Assisted Suicide," tactically combining the disdainful image of suicide with the recognition that this form would require professional assistance. For legislators, a train is coming. There is no way to avoid it and there is no middle ground. We will lose sleep as each of us wrestles with our own feelings. We will be besieged by advocates for both sides. We cannot please everyone and, no matter which way we vote, we will alienate friends.

As I personally wrestle with this issue, I'm deeply torn. Those of us with strong religious upbringing see this legislation as an affront to core values. It is hard to grasp the concept that a doctor, sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, would now be directly involved in terminating rather than protecting life. Many see this precedent as the first step toward "death panels," when decisions will need to be made by a government of limited means facing an aging population demanding ever more medical services. It would be easy to vote with the feeling that I was protecting core values and shielding ill Vermonters from a callous, tight-fisted bureaucracy.

Conversely, the libertarian in me says that government should stay out of this discussion. I find some comfort in the words of my senate colleague, Dick McCormick, who points out that the proposed bill would only permit those who are already dying to merely hasten that process. It would be easy, as a libertarian, to vote with the feeling that I was eliminating government interference in a very personal decision.

But I have a more personal problem. My mother never asked me to vote in a specific way on any legislation. Out of the blue one day she asked me to promise that I would never vote to support this concept. No bill was before us at the time, so I saw no problem making that promise. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Throughout the ordeal of her final days, she never wavered in holding me to that promise. I think about that now, staring at her black granite headstone, listening to the sound of a train whistle echoing down the Passumpsic River valley.

Sen. Joe Benning, of Lyndon, is a Republican serving the Caledonia-Orange Senate District.


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