Board Won’t Change Assisted-Suicide Policy

By Beacon Staff

HELENA –The Montana Board of Medical Examiners rejected a request Friday to strike its policy on physician-assisted suicide that opponents criticize as too permissive.

The board earlier this year tried to provide some guidance to doctors on that issue, which remains unclear to many. The board’s position was that it would consider, on an individual basis, any complaints filed against a doctor for providing “aid-in-dying.”

Montanans Against Assisted Suicide asked the board to revoke that policy, saying it appears to condone a procedure they argue is illegal. The board’s rejection of that request potentially paves the way for the opponents to sue.

The procedure has been surrounded by various interpretations since the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that nothing in state law prohibits physician-assisted suicide — but it did not rule on whether the practice is a constitutionally protected right. The decision said nothing in state law, or precedent, makes the procedure illegal.

Montana effectively became the third state to allow assisted suicide along with Oregon and Washington, but left it up to the state Legislature to create laws to regulate it. Without procedures, there have been no formal updates on whether doctors are indeed offering assisted suicide or any tallies on how many times it has been done.

The Montana Legislature has been unable to reach consensus on providing clarity to the issue one way or the other.

The Montana Board of Medical Examiners said it wrote its position paper based on a request from a member. The board said its position does not pass judgment on the procedure one way or another.

“In all matters of medical practice, including en-of-life matters, physicians are held to professional standards,” the position paper reads.

The board rejected the request to reconsider its decision without public comment. The board noted that the position paper was neither an administrative rule or a law, but merely informative guidance to its regulated members.

Bradley Williams, the Hamilton-based coordinator of Montanans Against Assisted Suicide, said his group formally requested the board to revoke that policy. He said the group will next ask the courts to strike the paper.

Williams said his group believes the Supreme Court decision did not legalize physician-assisted suicide, but rather gave doctors a defense they could use if charged with a crime.

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