End-of-Life Choice, Death with Dignity, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts TaggedRoberta King

Dying With Dignity

By Roberta King of Missoula, Montana. Roberta is the daughter of Bob Baxter, who fought in the Montana courts to have the legal right to aid in dying. (This is the second article in a three part series. The first article can be read here.)

My dad called me the summer before he died and told me he had purchased a gun and was going to end his life. He had gone to court to seek a legal right to aid in dying but it was taking a long time and his aggressive cancer was progressing fast.

When he told me his plans, I scolded him for being selfish and informed him that my mother would have that violent death as her memory of his passing. We argued about the court case. I was hoping it would resolve before long and I of course, being the child, didn’t think he would leave so soon. He was only 76 years old. Dad never mentioned it again; he sucked it up and hung on as long as he could.

During the last few months of his life, my father’s disease progressed to the stage where he suffered a great deal and was in a constant state of misery. His symptoms included severely swollen glands; constant pain and aching that made it extremely difficult for him to sit up; problems breathing; chronic fatigue and weakness; persistent infections; inability to sleep; loss of appetite; weight loss; and horrible episodes of alternating sweating and cold. He had lost about 30 pounds from his thin frame by the time he died.

My Dad was a very proud man. As his disease progressed, his ability to do things for himself decreased. He lost the ability to drive; this was crushing to him. He had been a truck driver for most of his life and now he couldn’t even drive himself to his Dr. appointments. He had to rely on my mother for everything.

Dad went on Hospice November 1st and I went to Billings to see him. I spent the whole drive thinking about what was coming. Once again, selfishly, I didn’t think he would leave so soon. He was so sick and miserable. From statements he made to me and other members of our family, it is clear my father would have availed himself of aid in dying if that choice had been legal in Montana and available to him. But we had heard nothing from the court.

I saw him again three weeks later, the week before he died. When I first saw him, I saw a skeleton of the man I knew. He was so thin his glasses wouldn’t stay on his face. I immediately burst into tears and dad had to comfort me. He asked me how long I thought he would have to endure before he finally died. I couldn’t tell him. I spent those few days trying to find things to comfort him: a pillow so he could sit, something to keep his glasses up. When my husband and I left, he said goodbye to me and meant it. I didn’t say my final goodbyes because I thought I would see him again.

On December 5, 2008, I was packing to come back to Billings to see him again. That was the day Judge McCarter issued her ruling. She wrote, “The Montana constitutional rights of individual privacy and human dignity, taken together, encompass the right of a competent terminally [ill] patient to die with dignity. . . . The patient’s right to die with dignity includes protection of the patient’s physician from liability under the State’s homicide statutes.” My father was sleeping when the news came that he had won his case. He never woke up.

Opponents of letting people make this choice themselves quickly attacked the judge’s ruling. Montana’s Attorney General announced he would appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. We knew the people of Montana agreed terminally ill patients should have the choice my dad wanted and Judge McCarter said the constitution agreed. Now we would have to see what the Supreme Court and then the legislature would have to say.

Bill by Montana Representative Will Implement Aid in Dying

Representative Dick Barrett of Missoula announced today he has asked the Montana Legislative Services Division to draft a bill to implement the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling in the Baxter case late last year allowing physicians to provide aid in dying when requested by terminally ill patients.

The Baxter v. Montana case confirmed the right of mentally competent, terminally ill Montanans to request a prescription for medication from their doctors which they can ingest to bring about a peaceful death. Missoula attorney Mark Connell, who argued the case to the court on behalf of the plaintiff physicians and patients, described the decision as “a victory for individual rights over government control.”

“I believe that the Supreme Court ruled correctly in this case,” Barrett said. “In Montana we respect the right of individuals, in consultation with their physicians, to make decisions, such as refusing treatment, that will hasten their deaths. A majority of Montanans believe that we should also respect the right of terminally ill patients to avoid unnecessary suffering and to choose for themselves the time and circumstances of their deaths by taking medications provided by a doctor.”

Survey results released in April confirmed that majority opinion. “Three in five (60%) of voters said they support end-of-life choices, while only 24% said they oppose,” said public opinion survey expert David Binder . “There is even greater support (63%) for the recent Supreme Court ruling, and nearly two in three voters (64%) want their own personal doctor to be able to comply with their end-of-life choices.”

Voters strongly oppose the State Legislature overturning the Supreme Court decision
When asked about the possibility of the State Legislature overturning the Supreme Court decision, voters are overwhelmingly opposed, with only one in four saying they want the State Legislature to overturn the Court’s ruling. Seven in ten voters do not want the Legislature to reverse the decision. The plurality of voters (39%) want the Legislature to allow the decision to take effect as written, while another 31% want it to take effect, with some additional safeguards.

Critics of aid in dying have expressed concern that some vulnerable individuals may be unduly influenced to request such assistance by family members or caregivers. “The evidence from Oregon,” Barrett said, “where physician assistance in dying has been available for many years, is that that concern is unfounded. But Oregon provides a number of safeguards to make sure that only willing patients request aid in dying.” Barrett said one of the major purposes of his bill will be to provide similar safeguards “that meet the particular needs of Montana patients and doctors.”

A second purpose of the bill will be to provide protection from civil liability or professional sanctions to physicians who wish to honor patients requests under the standards of practice called for in the bill. “It’s important to note too that the bill will clarify that no doctor, hospital or other health care provider will be required to provided assistance in dying,” Barrett said, adding that he is working with doctors, patients and their advocates to draft a bill to fit Montana’s specific needs.

Roberta King, of Missoula, the daughter of plaintiff Bob Baxter, said, “My father died without the peace and dignity he so dearly wanted for himself and others. I’m sure he would be deeply gratified that other terminally ill Montanans will have the choice and comfort that aid in dying affords them.”

See the Press Release from Rep. Dick Barrett here>>