End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Montana House Would Put Physicians in Prisonby Chris

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by Compassion & Choices staff
February 27, 2013

HELENA – Legislation that would treat aid in dying as homicide passed the House Wednesday, Feb. 27. House Bill 505, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel), seeks to put physicians in prison for up to ten years for discussing or providing aid in dying to terminal patients. It would change the legal landscape established in a 2009 state Supreme Court decision, which found that a physician could not be prosecuted for prescribing medication that a terminally ill person could take to bring about a peaceful death

Dustin Hankinson, a disability rights activist who suffers from muscular dystrophy, spoke against the bill at the hearing in House Judiciary last week. He said “This bill is part of a continued effort by a vocal minority to deny rights established in 1991 by the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act and reaffirmed by Baxter three years ago, despite the fact the vast majority of Montanan’s support having the option to choose aid in dying.”

A 2010 Binder Research poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Democratic, Independent and Republican voters in Montana “support allowing dying patients in severe distress to make their own end-of-life choice to receive a prescription for life-ending medication.”

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Baxter v. Montana it was unclear whether physicians could help terminally ill patients who wished to end their suffering. On December 31, 2009, the Baxter decision made Montana the third U.S. state where aid in dying is a safe and legal medical choice. The ruling strengthened the 1991 Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which allows mentally competent adults to make a declaration – Montana’s term for a living will. In 2009 the Court ruled that the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act specifically defers to a patient’s own decisions and affords patients the right to control their own bodies at the end of life. HB505 would take that right away and weaken the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.

Doctors are speaking out against HB505. In a guest editorial published around the state several doctors said, “We find this to be a gross misuse of government that at best will reduce important end-of-life conversations between doctors and patients to mere formalities, and at worst will result in inferior care and unnecessary suffering at the end of life. Montanans who have enjoyed freedom of choice throughout their adult lives deserve that same autonomy in their dying.” This opinion was signed by internist Thomas Roberts, oncologist Stephen Speckart, family medicine and palliative care physician Eric Kress, gastroenterologist Kenneth Eden, pulmonologist Paul Loehnen, pathologist Bruce Beckwith and otolaryngologist Phillip Gardner.