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Opponents of Bill to Make Doctors Liable for Homicide for Providing Aid in Dying Slam Testimony Limit

Say 15 Minutes for Each Side Is Not Nearly Enough Time to Debate Draconian Legislation

(Helena, Mont. – Feb. 24, 2017) Opponents of a bill that would make Montana doctors liable for homicide if they provide medical aid in dying to terminally ill adults slammed the House Judiciary Committee for shutting down debate on the legislation by limiting hearing testimony to only 15 minutes for each side.

Rep. Ellie Hill (94th district-Missoula) said she would file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee about the House Judiciary Committee limiting the testimony on the legislation.

“Some Montanans who oppose this draconian bill drove across the state in the middle of the night to testify at the 8:00 a.m. hearing, but the committee silenced them because it allotted too little time for everyone to speak,” said Jessica Grennan, the Montana-based National Director of Political Affairs and Advocacy for Compassion & Choices. “By shutting down debate, the committee is showing it intends to approve this horrific bill to sentence doctors to death or imprison them for providing their terminally ill patients the option to peacefully end unbearable suffering.”

The bill, HB 536, stipulates: “physician aid in dying is against public policy, and a patient’s consent to physician aid in dying is not a defense to a charge of homicide against the aiding physician.” Deliberate homicide in Montana is punishable by a maximum sentence of the death penalty and minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

“This bill says “government knows best,” said Bonnie Kelley, who is wheelchair-bound and said she got up at 2:00 a.m. to drive from her Missoula home to the hearing in Helena. “When it comes to my healthcare decisions, now or at the end of my life, the government has no right to decide what is best for me. My healthcare provider team, my family and I can make these decisions.”

HB 536 would overturn the 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision in a suit filed by Compassion & Choices on behalf of a terminally ill truck driver from Billings, Bob Baxter. The court ruled in the case, Baxter v. Montana, that: “…we find no indication in Montana law that physician aid in dying provided to terminally ill, mentally competent adult patients is against public policy.”

“My husband Erwin Byrnes…knew this [medical aid in dying] was a legal act…that would simply give him release from the pain and suffering; the chance to die unafraid and at peace,” testified Ethel Byrnes, who lives in Missoula. “Please think of the terrible consequences for those physicians who would be criminals under HB536 for an act…they consider to be an act of compassion; an act that is in alignment with the values and beliefs of the dying person. HB536 is not good policy for Montana, a state that prides itself on freedom, privacy and independence.”

Medical aid in dying is currently authorized in the District of Columbia (as of Feb. 18, 2017) and six states with 30+ years of experience with this end of life option: Oregon (since 1997), Washington (since 2008), Montana (since 2009), Vermont (since 2013), California (since June 2016), and Colorado (since Dec. 2016). There is no evidence of abuse or coercion related to these laws.

“I happen know many physicians who do embrace the concept. I am one of them,” testified Dr. Jim McCreedy, an 80-year-old retired physician with Parkinson’s disease from Great Falls. “Aid in dying is just one, patient-directed option along the spectrum of palliative care. This legislation would force doctors to abandon their patients, just when they are needed most.”

According to the Journal of Palliative Medicine: “…it is possible that the Oregon Death with Dignity Act has resulted in or at least reflects more open conversation and careful evaluation of end-of-life options, more appropriate palliative care training of physicians, and more efforts to reduce barriers to access to hospice care and has thus increased hospice referrals and reduced potentially concerning patterns of hospice use in the state.”

Thursday, Compassion & Choices released a video featuring Bob Baxter’s terminally ill, 36-year-old grandson, TJ Mutchler, and TJ’s mom, Leslie Mutchler, who also testified today, urging Montana lawmakers not to advance legislation to criminalize medical aid in dying, as they have done in every legislative session since the Baxter ruling. The video is posted at: bit.ly/TJmutch

“If you can think of the worst flu you’ve ever had and you get the cold sweats and then have someone stab a hot poker in your insides and just twist it around,” TJ Mutchler says in the video. “I’m asking the Montana legislature to vote no against any bill that could possibly take any of this [the option of medical aid in dying] away from me.”

“TJ is not choosing to end his life,” Leslie Mutchler says in the video. “Cancer chose to end his life. And so, all he’s asking is for assistance in ending his suffering when he can’t take it anymore.”

Ironically, Rep. Brad Tschida (97th district-Missoula) introduced HB 536 to criminalize medical aid in dying on Monday(Feb. 20, 2017), one day after TJ Mutchler utilized it to end his intolerable suffering from pancreatic cancer last Sunday (Feb. 19, 2017).

Nearly 7 out 10 Montana voters (69%) said they support allowing a mentally competent adult who is dying of a terminal disease and in extreme pain to choose to end his or her life in a humane and dignified way, according to Global Strategy Group survey in April 2013.