End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Big Win in the Big Sky Stateby Sonja

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After an intense legislative session battling House Bill 505, otherwise known as “The Doctor Imprisonment Act,” the Montana Senate struck down this dangerous measure, which would have obliterated citizens’ right to access aid in dying and criminalized doctors who provide it. HB 505 fizzled 27-23 on April 15 after its proponents used procedural maneuvers to bring it to the full Senate.

The 2009 state Supreme Court ruling in Compassion & Choices’ landmark Baxter v. Montana case effectively made Montana the third state to affirmatively allow aid in dying. Immediately following the court’s ruling, opponents of aid in dying began working to undo the landmark decision and unravel the right of terminally ill Montanans to die with dignity on their own terms.

Compassion & Choices Montana launched an aggressive campaign to preserve the Baxter ruling and thwart HB505. Our outstanding Montana team rallied dedicated local activists to bombard newspapers with letters to the editor, call their legislators and travel through miles of snow to testify at crucial hearings. This led legislators from both sides of the aisle to stand up for what the majority of their constituents want. A poll that Compassion & Choices commissioned indicated 69% of Montanans support aid in dying and 73% opposed imprisoning doctors for providing it.

And in addition to the dozens of doctors who publicly declared their support of freedom to choose at life’s end, one hero emerged: 56-year-old native Montanan and family physician Dr. Eric Kress. When the bill seemed to be gaining momentum, he stood before a Senate committee and testified that he had provided aid in dying to three of his patients in the four years since the Baxter ruling made it legal. With an authentic voice of empathy and reason, Kress also appeared in state and national media – including a guest column he wrote in The Missoulian and a story in The New York Times – and in numerous print and radio ads expressing his firm belief in terminally ill adults’ right to request aid in dying, and doctors’ right to provide it. “The senators clearly listened to me and to the citizens of Montana and were open-minded, and I appreciate it,” Dr. Kress said after the vote.

Back East, the Vermont House passed legislation Wednesday to allow aid in dying. The House approved the bill 81-64 after two days of earnest debate. Several House members told very personal stories of their own loved ones’ deaths, and some stated a dying parent would have appreciated the choice to end his or her own life. The bill that passed the House now must be reconciled with a much different Senate version. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he will sign the bill if it gets to his desk.

While Compassion & Choices is very pleased with these important wins, the fight continues. The opposition in Montana is influential and determined, and they’ll undoubtedly be back again to try to impose their judgment and misguided paranoia on the entire state. And while Vermont’s progress is inspiring, the debate is not over, as negotiating will continue in the Senate. Compassion & Choices is also currently at work in a number of other states including Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont, campaigning to empower patients with a full range of options at the end of life. Be one of the movement’s next heroes by visiting your state’s page to see how you can get involved.