Assisted Suicide Issue Hits State Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers were asked Monday to either set guidelines for physician-assisted suicide in the wake of a high court ruling or ban it altogether.

Supporters of the procedure told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the government has no right telling people that they can’t end their own life when they are in the grips of a terminal disease. Opponents said that doctors have no place helping someone end their life, and argue the procedure could be misused.

The panel is looking at two different bills, one from supporters of the procedure and the other from those opposed to it.

The issue was thrust into prominence after the Dec. 31, 2009, Supreme Court ruling in the case of Baxter v. Montana that effectively made Montana the third state to allow physician-assisted suicide, along with Oregon and Washington.

The Montana Supreme Court ruling came in the case filed on behalf of Robert Baxter of Billings and four physicians. Baxter died of lymphoma Dec. 5, 2008 — the day a district judge ruled that Baxter had a protected right to end his suffering and bring about a peaceful death by ingesting medication.

But the high court ruling did nothing to establish rules or procedures for prescribing the death-inducing drugs. And many doctors say the court decision isn’t clear enough to ensure they wouldn’t be prosecuted if they helped with a patient suicide.

Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, is carrying Senate Bill 116 to definitively prohibit the procedure. He argued, like others opposed to the procedure, that the infirm no longer able to make their own decisions could be taken advantage of by others who want to hasten their death.

Opponents also pointed out that not all terminal diagnoses are correct, and people occasionally recover after receiving such a diagnosis.

“The purpose of this bill is to protect the elderly from the possibility of abuse,” Hinkle said.

Some doctors opposed to assisted suicide were also opposed to Hinkle’s bill because they argued it could open them up to prosecution in normal palliative care that aims to ease pain but can in some cases can speed up death.

Sen. Anders Blewett, D- Great Falls, is carrying Senate Bill 167 that sets out steps for physicians to follow and would require a patient to receive two doctor opinions before they could be prescribed the lethal medication, and reaffirm the choice twice in front of multiple witnesses. It also requires counseling before someone also suffering from depression can make the decision.

Supporters say the government has no business telling people they can’t make their own end-of-life decisions.

“I urge you not to take away the choice my dad fought to bring to Montanan,” Roberta King, daughter of Robert Baxter.

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