General Anthropology Division
Oral Presentation Session
In July 2016, while I was undertaking ethnographic fieldwork on Vermont’s medical aid-in-dying law, three professional medical organizations filed a federal lawsuit against several state agents challenging the constitutionality of the law I was studying. Vermont’s law is similar to those in six other US jurisdictions, but the lawsuit hinged on a distinctive aspect of Vermont’s legislation pertaining to patients’ rights to information. The plaintiffs alleged that the law required physicians to inform terminally ill patients that assisted death was a legal option in Vermont, and that this violated their First Amendment rights. The lawsuit thus raised questions about protected speech and the extent to which law can script the clinical encounter. The plaintiffs’ case rested on the presumption that a physician’s words could be powerful enough to damage the patient-physician relationship or to influence a patient to hasten her death, a view which I have elsewhere described as a disclosure ideology. In this paper, I argue that the lawsuit and the disclosure ideologies underlying it reveal broader uncertainties about scripting death under a regime of medically assisted death. Drawing on analysis of legal documents and observations of judicial proceedings, I illustrate how worries about informing patients about assisted dying reflect more general cultural anxieties surrounding the physician’s agency in scripting death, and the underlying set of relationships between clinical speech, ethics, and action. In doing so, I show how scripting offers a capacious concept for bridging between medical and linguistic anthropology because of its multiple meanings and analytic registers.