Doctors provide conflicting testimony on bill criminalizing assisted suicide

Opponents of a bill  criminalizing physician assisted suicide line up to speak Tuesday

Opponents of a bill criminalizing physician-assisted suicide line up to speak Tuesday

Members of the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill seeking to clamp-down on leniency toward physician-assisted suicide granted by the Montana Supreme Court.

In the court’s 2009 “Baxter Decision“, justices declared Montana law did not limit a doctor’s right to provide ‘aid in dying’ to a terminally ill patient providing consent and taking the lethal dose themselves.

“This legal gray area remains, a little bit of confusion and that’s the purpose of this bill, to clarify the situation,” said Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) about his HB505. Under the bill, a doctor engaging in assisted suicide could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and/or would have to pay up to a $50 thousand fine.
The group Montanans Against Assisted Suicide presented a petition supporting the bill signed by about 100 Montana physicians. Those speaking in favor of Kerns’ bill say the current leeway given to doctors opens the door to elder abuse, and rationing of care to those with severe illnesses.
“The purpose of medicine is to put a collegial arm around patients and walk with them through whatever they’re experiencing,” said Great Falls neurosurgeon Paul Gorsuch, one of the doctors who signed the support petition. “Assisted suicide is prone to deadly error, it’s prone to abuse.”
Retired Great Falls doctor David Hafer says he himself has undergone very painful cancer treatment, treatment that he says plunged him into severe depression for the first time in his life. He says some patients could be too easily coerced into suicide.
“When this cloud of depression comes over you, from the cancer drugs that are administered, you are not in your right mind,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee heard from a long line of opponents as well, including several doctors.
“You may be wondering, what kind of doctor is it that you will be sending to jail?” asked
 Missoula family physician Eric Kress referencing the bill. “I stand before you and state that I am that kind of doctor, I have written an aid in dying prescription on three occasions.” He says he gave those three prescriptions out of ten who requested the option following the Baxter Decision. “All were male and all were rugged individualists,” he said, and each said it was important to preserve dignity in their deaths from painful, terminal conditions.
Another Missoula doctor, Tom Roberts, said he has had patients hoard non-lethal prescription medications to later kill themselves with an overdose. He worries how HB505 would affect doctors prescribing of some of those drugs.
 “We want it to be an open and honest discussion, all of us would, when we’re going in to see a doctor,” he said. “Now we’re going to have this hanging over our heads as physicians.”
The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday. We reported earlier this session on a bill seeking to specifically allow physician-assisted suicide. That bill was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

Passionate testimony from public on assisted suicide bill

Sticker worn by an opponent of SB 220 during the bill's hearing on Monday

Sticker worn by an opponent of SB 220 during the bill’s hearing on Monday

A bill which would clarify the state’s position on physician assisted suicide is being considered by a committee of state lawmakers. Sponsor Senator Dick Barrett (D-Missoula) says his legislation clarifies a Montana Supreme Court Decision which says citizens have a right to ask for ‘aid in dying’.

Barrett says the Montana Supreme Court’s 2009 ‘Baxter Decision’ makes his bill necessary, due to it’s vague and broadly written nature. Helena attorney Ron Waterman supports Barrett’s bill on that note, saying it “avoids…doctors having to drag out the Baxter Decision, it’s almost 70-some pages, read through it and try to figure out what it means to them.”

Senator Barrett’s bill has three primary aims.

  • Provide protections to terminally ill patients seeking to end their own lives if they’re mentally competent.
  • Provide legal immunity to the physician or friends or family who help with the assisted suicide—provided it’s in good faith.
  • Make sure no one is required to provide ‘aid in dying’ services if it is contrary to their conscience or religion.

“It would have been extremely rare for this bill to be needed, when it was needed it was needed critically,” said primary care physician Kenneth Eden. He says hundreds of his patients have died under his care—but a small number of them were suffering greatly and pleaded for a way to die. Supporters say this bill would give people more freedom, to make that final choice about the end of their lives.

Opponents of the bill believe it’s taking away freedom.

“I am 64-years old and I do not want a doctor or a nurse telling me or my wife that we should murder ourselves,” said President of the group Montanans Against Assisted Suicide Bradley Williams. “We have the right to be left alone.”

The bill does not in any way mandate the use of assisted suicide, it would be voluntary.

Those against the bill do say it allows for elder abuse—especially when inheritance is involved. Also, Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek says doctors are often wrong when predicting things like life expectancy. She brought up a friend with breast cancer that moved to her lungs. Doctors told her she had 6 months to live, “and that was 15 years ago, she still has a medical practice and she’s still playing tennis. If assisted suicide becomes legal in this state there will be Montanans who kill themselves who could have had many quality years.”

Sidney Republican Representative David Halvorson brings up a theological argument against the bill. He points to the Declaration of Independence, which provides the inalienable rights given by God—rights like the right to life.

“And therefore to attempt to bargain away your right to life through assisted suicide is a bargaining away of the grant of the almighty,” he said.

No action was taken on the bill. Both Oregon and Washington have similar laws which allow physician assisted suicide.