For a while, it looked like I was in serious trouble.
I’m an old-school family physician in Missoula, Montana, just like my dad before me. I had written aid-in-dying prescriptions for three patients since the Montana Supreme Court’s Baxter decision made it legal to do so in 2009.
But now, the Baxter decision was about to be upended by state legislators. Working with anti-choice zealots, they proposed a bill to put doctors in jail for up to ten years for writing those legal prescriptions.
Compassion & Choices, which spearheaded Baxter and made physician aid in dying possible for my patients, was still on the scene—protecting the decision from all manner of legislative and activist mischief. Thankfully, they were ready to defeat this latest attack.
They ran a smart grassroots campaign to alert and mobilize the majority of Montanans who agree that people at the end of life have a right to die with dignity. Guess what? The people spoke and the legislators listened. The bill was defeated with votes from across the political spectrum.
Plenty of longtime citizen advocates were getting involved, too, and I wanted to join them. But I worried that speaking out as a physician would be a lonely endeavor. That turned out to be far from true.
Compassion & Choices gave me moral and strategic support every step of the way as I began to take a public position against what they dubbed the “Doctor Imprisonment Act” and disclosed my choice to help terminally ill patients who asked to end their lives with dignity. They helped me share my experience through state and national media, which ignited an outpouring of support from throughout my community.
I am impressed. In fact, I would share a foxhole with anyone from Compassion & Choices again—they will watch your back and not run from a fight. I’m determined to rally others to join us.
While we won this particular battle in Montana, defeating the “Doctor Imprisonment Act” on April 15, opponents will try again—in Montana and other states where the right to aid in dying is tenuous or nonexistent.
My personal experience gave me a unique perspective. The patients I wrote prescriptions for valued their right to die with dignity. All were of sound mind and spirit. They clearly wanted to live, but not in the miserable condition their terminal disease dictated.
But what motivated me to defend Montana’s law was a prescription I didn’t write. When Baxter was still new, a dying patient with advanced ALS asked me for aid-in-dying medication, and I hesitated. He was a wealthy, self-made man who had been incredibly strong in health, but whose illness had reduced him to skin and bones.
He scolded me and called me a coward. Several weeks later, he had stockpiled enough pain medication to hasten his own death by putting it in his feeding tube.
After he died, I wondered, “What kind of man or doctor am I? Will I sit idly by and watch a proud man suffer, or will I be brave and help people at the end of life?” I spent many sleepless nights pondering this question.
Shortly after that, when a patient with terminal esophageal cancer asked me to write a prescription, I said yes. When his condition worsened and his pain became unrelenting, he prepared the medication, opened a bottle of Guinness and asked those of us in attendance—me, his sister, his hospice team—to join him in a toast.
He thanked me for having the courage to write this prescription and said if there was anything about his case that could help make aid in dying available to more people, I should use it. I am proud I had the courage to do the right thing for him and others. And I am committed to fulfill his dying wish to make aid in dying a legal option for more patients.
During this campaign, I learned a lot about Compassion & Choices’ heroic efforts to protect and expand end-of-life options. If you value their work as I do, please support Compassion & Choices with a contribution today.
Dr. Eric Kress