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Montana HB505: Outlawing Assisted Suicide

Image: Flickr, Alex Proimos

Montana lawmakers are considering a controversial bill to outlaw physician-assisted suicide, a decision that opponents say would punish doctors for honoring their dying patients’ wishes. If the bill passes, physicians who provide life-ending drugs could face 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Introduced by Rep. Krayton Kerns, a Republican, HB505 seeks to clarify “the offense of assisting in suicide,” after a 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision left many confused about the issue.

Known as the Baxter Decision, the court ruled physicians that prescribe life-ending drugs are safe from prosecution, because “nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes [indicates] that physician aid in dying is against public policy.” However, the decision did not address whether assisted suicide is a right guaranteed under the state Constitution.

Kerns insists the ruling needs clarification. “The Baxter Decision did not establish legal assisted suicide in Montana, and this has remained a gray area,” Kerns told the Great Falls Tribune. “This bill would be a legislative declaration saying it is illegal based on constitution principles.”

According to the bill, “A person who purposely aids or solicits another person to commit suicide, including physician-assisted suicide, commits the offense of aiding or soliciting suicide.” Consent of the patient would not be a defense. However, withholding life-sustaining treatments from terminally ill patients would remain legal.

Critics argue the bill would curtail patients’ end of life choices. Opponent Bonnie Warne of Billings told the Billings Gazette that doctors who provide life-ending drugs to their patients would be unfairly attacked. “Death is inevitable and private. We do not need the state interfering with aid in dying,” she said.

Dan Lourie, from Bozeman, wrote a letter to the Montana Standard arguing that if the bill passes, he would be forced to forfeit his doctor-patient privacy. “My position is that my end-of life choices should be between me and my doctor, and the Montana Supreme Court agrees with me,” he wrote. “It should be my right, and certainly will be my desire, to discuss all of my choices with my doctor — treatment options, my choice to refuse treatment, pursuit of comfort care and assistance in dying.”

Compassion and Choices, a non-profit that serves to expand end of life options, maintains the bill would “roll-back” end of life legislation.

“HB505 goes beyond just prohibiting aid in dying by putting a physician at risk of prosecution for answering a patient’s questions about any of a variety of death hastening options, such as directing deactivation of a cardiac device, directing withdrawal of a ventilator or feeding tube, or provision of palliative sedation; and a spouse, child or friend could be prosecuted for driving the patient to the doctor’s office for the discussion,” a statement posted on their Web site read.

If the bill were to pass, palliative care would still be allowed for terminally ill patients, because palliative care serves to manage pain and ease suffering.

Hearings about the bill began this week.