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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill Would Criminalize Doctor-Assisted Death

Montana Capitol building.
Nick Mott
Montana Capitol building.

HELENA -- Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would invalidate consent as a legal defense for doctor-assisted deaths, meaning doctors could be charged with homicide if they help a terminally-ill person die.

Under current law, patient “consent” in these cases is invalid if a person is legally incompetent, coerced, cannot make reasonable judgment or if the action is taken is against public policy. House Bill 284, sponsored by Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, would make doctor-assisted death against public policy.

“This bill is an opportunity to send a consistent message about suicide from young to old, from healthy to sick -- that it’s not a good option,” Glimm said during the bill’s initial hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, sponsored the same bill in 2017 but it failed to pass through the House on a 50-50 vote.

A 2009 ruling from the Montana Supreme Court, Baxter v. Montana, made doctor-assisted death a legal option in the state. Essentially, the ruling found that nothing in state law prohibited a doctor from prescribing medication to hasten a patient’s death. The case was brought by an ex-Marine and retired truck driver, Robert Baxter, who was suffering from leukemia and wanted the right to an assisted death.

Justice John Warner, appointed by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz to the Montana Supreme Court, wrote a concurring opinion in which he said “suicide” is a pejorative term and that it should not be used to describe doctor-assisted death.

But, like Glimm, supporters of the bill say allowing doctor-assisted death still sends the wrong message about suicide. Executive Director of the Montana Catholic Conference Matt Brower was one of the bill’s supporters Tuesday, saying doctor-assisted death could also harm patients’ trust for doctors.

“Legalized assisted suicide represents misguided public policy and would have harmful implications for all of society,” Brower said.

Six other people spoke in support of the bill, including representatives from Montanans Against Assisted Suicide, the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Right to Life.

Baxter’s daughter testified in opposition of the bill. Roberta King, from Missoula, says her dad told her many times he wanted aid in dying, but it wasn’t legal yet.

“This made his suffering and death much more painful and difficult than they otherwise could have been and deprived him the right for himself to decide how much suffering he would endure before he died,” King said.

King said two years ago, her 36-year-old nephew also died with a doctor’s help while suffering from pancreatic cancer. King said she and her sister drove to Helena to testify against the 2017 version of this bill two days after his death.

Nine others testified in opposition to HB 284, including two registered nurses and a doctor. Many said doctor-assisted death should be a matter of privacy and personal choice, not of the government.

The committee will now decide whether to move it to the House Floor for debate, or to table it.

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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