Jane Jelinski is no stranger to politics. She served as a Gallatin County Commissioner from 1984 until 1998 and is known as an activist in Bozeman, Montana. But life can render injustice in a very personal light and fuel an even greater determination for political change.
She had always been a supporter of choice at the end of life. She was gratified when the Montana Supreme Court’s Baxter decision declared aid in dying was an option available to Montanans who are terminally ill and had followed subsequent efforts to establish a framework for the practice. Then it got personal.
Just over a year ago, Jane talked with her close friend Judy, who had endured a progression of incurable and progressive illnesses for the past 18 years. “She had talked about her pain many times, but on this day she told me that her life was unrelenting agony,” Jane remembers. “She could not eat, sleep, sit, lie down or walk without pain. There was just no pleasure in her life anymore.”
The following evening, a Sunday night, Judy drove to a vacant parking lot, alone with a gun, and shot herself. “She was exactly my age. I did not know she was going to kill herself. But it broke my heart because she has a loving family and went to all these elaborate preparations to conceal from them what she was going to do. I was so horrified by that — the violence and the loneliness of it. “
Jane urged members of the state legislature to affirm access to aid in dying. She learned there was a bill — SB 220, the Montana Death with Dignity Act — that would do just that by creating explicit protections for doctors that would make the practice more widely available. Through bill sponsor Rep. Dick Barrett she learned about Compassion & Choices and began working to help give people facing terminal illness better options than Judy had. She quickly began enlisting other activists from among her friends and neighbors, and reaching out to key community members.
On February 11, with the thermometer well below freezing, Jane hit the road, driving for hours across the rugged Montana landscape to the state Capitol in Helena. There in a hearing room before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she shared Judy’s story in support of SB 220. “She should have had access to medication she could have self-administered so she could have died painlessly and peacefully at home with her family. Please support SB 220 so future patients might not have to endure such a violent and lonely end to their unbearable suffering.”
Jane learned days later that the committee had voted to table SB 220, effectively ending its chances until the next legislative session, in 2015. Worse news was to come.
Rep. Krayton Kerns introduced HB 505, now known as the “Physician Imprisonment Act of 2013.” Aiming to gut the court’s ruling, Kerns’ bill called for imprisoning doctors for 10 years on felony charges if they provided aid in dying to their patients who request it. As the bill moved through the Montana House, Jane wrote to the editor of The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, lambasting “politicians [who] would arrogantly substitute their personal beliefs for your choices.” The paper published her letter — right next to an ad paid for by aid-in-dying opponents. It was a strong one-two punch. People who saw the ad and her letter contacted Jane about getting involved.
Jane contacted her state Senator Larry Jent and Gov. Steve Bullock. Both were politicians she had worked with as a commissioner; she supported them in their campaigns.
For the March Judiciary Committee hearing on HB 505, Jane got back in the car and once again made the 60-mile journey to Helena. She joined doctors, social workers, nurses, terminally ill patients and other survivors to speak out for patient choice. They denounced a bill that is so extreme it would make it a felony for doctors to answer their patients’ questions about how to die peacefully if a terminal disease became unbearable. “I do not want to be denied the right to die with dignity,” Jane said, “because of legislators’ intrusion into the most private decisions a person can make.”
Jane has also reached out to her neighbors and friends to help fund Compassion & Choices’ statewide radio and print ad campaign, bringing attention to the “Physician Imprisonment Act.” Their contributions mean these ads are turning up the heat on legislators who hear increasingly from their constituents in opposition to the bill. At the time this story goes to press, the bill’s fate is unknown. But if it makes it out of the Senate, the cry will become even stronger for Gov. Bullock to exercise his veto.
Compassion & Choices knows it takes more than just legislation or court action to give people real options at the end of life. Regardless of the outcome in the Montana legislature, every doctor and patient must know the option is available, and doctors need to understand the practice. Jane Jelinski continues to help by bringing that knowledge and understanding to her community. In March, she introduced Compassion & Choices organizers to Bozeman area doctors, who this month will host a breakfast conversation with fellow physicians and caregivers about the availability of aid in dying in Montana.
“I just think that as citizens we have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe in,” Jane says. “After I retired from being county commissioner I taught state and local government at MSU, and what I always told my students was: ‘The world is run by those who show up.’ I think if everybody would think about that and get off their duffs and just show up, we’d have a better society.”