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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Lawmakers Debate Competing Assisted Suicide Bills

Rep. Brad Tschida (R) - Missoula
Montana Legislature

In the Montana legislature Tuesday morning, two bills were heard, offering two very different answers to the same question: Does a terminally ill person have a right to die on their own terms, instead of waiting for their illness to run its course, often with much pain, and little dignity?

The House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that answered “no” to the question of a right to die. It would allow doctors to be prosecuted for assisting in a suicide. Thomas Warr, a physician from Great Falls, said doctors should not be given the shortcut of simply ending a terminal patient’s life.

"Assisted suicide is too easy. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to a physician who promotes assisted suicide, everybody looks like somebody who needs a lethal prescription."

Barbara Kirkland, who described herself as a 91-year-old with a “wonky heart”, urged lawmakers to reject the bill because end-of-life decisions should belong to a patient and their doctor, not to the government.

“But you’re going to die, and who has the right to tell you how or when. The government? This bill is making it that only the government, that all-invasive body, will decide how you end."

House Bill 328 would allow a doctor to be convicted of homicide, even if their patient asked for help dying.

Dick Barrett.
Credit Montana Legislature
Sen Dick Barrett (D) SD45

At the same hour, the Senate Judiciary Committee was hearing a bill by Missoula Democrat Dick Barrett that spells out how a person can ask for a physician-assisted death, and even includes the form they would sign before a lethal dose can be administered.

“It is intended to provide for the greatest amount of autonomy and yet calm the fears of the community about this issue," Barrett said." It’s also intended to make sure that physicians have the latitude to be responsive to those patient requests by not being subject to professional and civil liability.”

Barrett’s bill would give Montana a “Death with Dignity” procedure similar to those in Oregon and Washington.

The Senate bill makes political adversaries of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which favors it, and Disability Rights Montana which is opposed.   Doctor Craig Treptow, a family physician from Great Falls, called it contrary to his profession.

“The purpose of physicians is the preservation and restoration of health, to the best of our ability. Our purpose is not to help people kill themselves. In other words, physician assisted suicide is outside our scope of practice, it is not in our job description.”

Both the House bill to ban physician assisted suicide and the Senate bill to legitimize it grew out of the 2009 court case Baxter v. Montana, about the assisted suicide of truck driver Robert Baxter, who suffered from leukemia. The court found that the state constitution does not establish a right to a physician-assisted suicide, but the court also found nothing in the law to prevent it.

Lawmakers have tried to fill in that gray area in every session since the ruling, with no success. The fact that lawmakers are considering two bills with completely opposite goals underscores the division over the “death with dignity” issue in the legislature, and society in general. Both bills face votes in their committees before going to the House or Senate floor. It’s unclear when those votes will happen.

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