End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling



by Compassion & Choices staff
March 20, 2013

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HELENA – Legislation that would treat aid in dying as homicide will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 26, at 8 a.m. House Bill 505, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel), seeks to put physicians in prison for up to 10 years for providing aid in dying to terminal patients who request it. 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.

The bill could create a government-imposed gag order on physicians and could land doctors in prison for answering their patients’ questions about end-of-life medical care. Physicians worry that they will be second-guessed by prosecutors and legislators when treating dying patients for pain or even patients with symptoms such as sleeplessness or anxiety.

Dustin Hankinson, a disability rights activist and dedicated advocate of end-of-life choice who suffers from muscular dystrophy, testified at the House Judiciary hearing on Feb. 20 against this threat to the right he helped secure in Montana, “By going through all this work – all this work to stay alive – because I want to make a difference in this world, what have I earned? I’ve earned the ability to have them starve me to death and dehydrate, or to drown in my own body fluid. Those are my only options. There should be another option. Palliative care by itself is not adequate. We’re not pro-death. We’re pro-choice. We want people to make decisions that allow them to take responsibility for their own lives.”

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 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.

“Most Montanans agree that it is not the government’s role to interfere in private medical decisions. Politicians are the last people needed at the bedside of a dying person,” said Rep. David “Doc” Moore (R-Missoula). “House Bill 505 would allow the government to undermine the sacred relationship between doctor and patient.”

Many doctors are also speaking out against HB505. Family medicine and palliative care physician Eric Kress appears in a Compassion & Choices Montana radio ad campaign airing on stations throughout Montana this week.

“Sometimes I’m called upon to provide care and compassion to suffering, terminally ill patients at the end of their lives,” Kress said. “But legislators want to put doctors like me who help dying patients in extreme pain in prison. This would ignore the Montana Supreme Court and get big, invasive government into our private medical decisions.”

Kress, Moore and Hankinson will be available at the hearing on March 26 to speak with media representatives.