Legislature

Montana Bill Seeks to Charge Doctors Assisting in Suicides

A 2009 state Supreme Court decision protects doctors from prosecution for the practice, though it is not explicitly allowed in state law

By Associated Press

HELENA – The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee voted Friday to advance a bill that would make it illegal for doctors to help terminal patients take their own life.

The measure would open doctors up to possible homicide charges if they prescribe a lethal dose of medication at the request of their patients.

A 2009 state Supreme Court decision protects doctors from prosecution for the practice, though it is not explicitly allowed in state law.

Supporters of the bill said that allowing physician-assisted death would send the wrong message to those considering suicide in the state. Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S.

“Once allowed this is a severely slippery slope,” said bill sponsor Republican Sen. Carl Glimm. “We need to show in every way we can that suicide is wrong.”

Opponents of the bill made clear that medically assisted death is not related to the state’s suicide rate. The practice is only available to those suffering from terminal disease.

“Medical aid in dying is not suicide. These patients are not depressed — they are dying. There is a very big difference,” said Dr. Colette Kirchhoff, a hospice and palliative care physician from Bozeman. “It’s a way to alleviate suffering.”

Leslie Mutchler, the daughter of Robert Baxter, the plaintiff in the Montana Supreme Court case that allowed the practice, testified in opposition to the bill. Her son chose physician assistance to end his life in 2016 after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

“He gained so much peace of mind when he was able to obtain the life-ending medication from a physician,” Mutchler said. “It’s not suicide. It’s a life that is already ending. It is just a way to hasten it.”

Several states allow physician-assisted suicide, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Similar measures to criminalize physicians for the practice have faltered in Montana in every legislative session in the past decade — when the bills have died before reaching the governor’s desk.

This year, the bill may find a more favorable fate with the support of the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte, the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years. Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras testified in favor of the bill on Friday, saying the governor supports the measure.

Juras said two of her grandchildren are diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes persistent lung infections and over time reduces lung capacity.

“We are committed to walking with them through the hard days. I do not want you to send them the message when they have a tough day that suicide is an acceptable option,” she said.

The committee voted to advance the bill along party lines, with seven Republicans in favor and four Democrats opposed. It heads next to a vote by the full Senate.

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