Bill to Set Rules for Doctor-Assisted Suicide Fails

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers tabled a bill Thursday that would have established rules for physician-assisted suicide — setting up a situation where Montana could remain in limbo under a 2009 court ruling that doesn’t specifically prevent doctors from getting criminally charged in such cases.

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that nothing in state law prevents a doctor from prescribing lethal drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients. But the court didn’t determine if the state constitution guarantees the right to physician-assisted suicide.

Doctors fear they still could be prosecuted in such cases, although the high court ruling said that they could use, most likely successfully, physician-assisted suicide as a defense to homicide charges.

Many were hoping the Legislature would bring clarity to the issue — either by setting up rules or definitively saying it is banned.

Supporters of the procedure argued the Legislature had an obligation to provide guidance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Opponents of the procedure argued that the risk of the elderly and infirm being abused required lawmakers to ban it altogether.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled the plan, on a 7-5 vote, that would have implemented rules for the procedure. And although a separate measure to make physician-assisted suicide illegal was not acted upon Thursday, supporters of the procedure say it also has little chance of clearing the Legislature and getting the governor’s signature.

Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, was pitching Senate Bill 167 to establish steps for physicians to follow. It would have set up safeguards, such as requiring a patient to receive two doctor opinions before they could be prescribed the lethal medication.

But even though lawmakers were opposed to the rules, it is also likely they will be opposed to an outright ban set up in Senate Bill 116, Blewett said.

“I think what is going to happen is the law will remain the same,” Blewett said. “Terminally ill patients will have to rely on courageous doctors who are willing to expose themselves to the risk of a criminal trial, and that embarrassment, even though they would prevail in a trial.”

Because of such potential, cases where physicians have helped with the procedure since the high court’s ruling have been kept hush-hush. Advocates have only said there have been cases where it was used, but won’t say how many times.

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