HELENA – A Missoula lawmaker is drafting a measure to implement the state Supreme Court’s decision to allow physician-assisted suicide, an issue likely to be debated in the next legislative session alongside a separate proposal to ban the practice in Montana.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled in December that nothing in state law prevents a doctor from prescribing the lethal drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients. The ruling made Montana the third state to allow physician-assisted suicide.
But authorities say they have no way of knowing how many people in the state have ended their lives that way, who is doing it or even how it is being done.
Democratic Rep. Dick Barrett said he has asked legislative staff to draft a bill that he will introduce in the 2011 Legislature, which convenes in January.
“My sense is that terminally ill Montanans really do want to have this choice available to them, not that large numbers of people take advantage of it,” Barrett said Thursday. “Terminally ill Montanans and most Americans have the right to hasten their deaths by refusing treatment, food and water.”
Barrett said Montanans are concerned that some vulnerable individuals may be unduly influenced by family members or caregivers to seek this assistance.
Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been available since 1998, has safeguards to ensure that only willing patients make the requests.
A major purpose of his bill, Barrett said, is to put into place similar safeguards in Montana.
It also would try to protect physicians who participate in an assisted suicide from civil liability or professional sanctions.
Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, has also requested a bill to be drafted that would ban physician-assisted suicide.
He said legalizing it “opens a Pandora’s box.”
“It’s basically to prevent elder abuse,” Hinkle said. “They talk about choice, but in many cases, there is no choice made. Once the decision is made to commit suicide, they put the decision in the hands of other people — the doctor and the family.”