Members of the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill seeking to clamp-down on leniency toward physician-assisted suicide granted by the Montana Supreme Court.
In the court’s 2009 “Baxter Decision“, justices declared Montana law did not limit a doctor’s right to provide ‘aid in dying’ to a terminally ill patient providing consent and taking the lethal dose themselves.
“This legal gray area remains, a little bit of confusion and that’s the purpose of this bill, to clarify the situation,” said Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) about his HB505. Under the bill, a doctor engaging in assisted suicide could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and/or would have to pay up to a $50 thousand fine.
The group Montanans Against Assisted Suicide presented a petition supporting the bill signed by about 100 Montana physicians. Those speaking in favor of Kerns’ bill say the current leeway given to doctors opens the door to elder abuse, and rationing of care to those with severe illnesses.
“The purpose of medicine is to put a collegial arm around patients and walk with them through whatever they’re experiencing,” said Great Falls neurosurgeon Paul Gorsuch, one of the doctors who signed the support petition. “Assisted suicide is prone to deadly error, it’s prone to abuse.”
Retired Great Falls doctor David Hafer says he himself has undergone very painful cancer treatment, treatment that he says plunged him into severe depression for the first time in his life. He says some patients could be too easily coerced into suicide.
“When this cloud of depression comes over you, from the cancer drugs that are administered, you are not in your right mind,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee heard from a long line of opponents as well, including several doctors.
“You may be wondering, what kind of doctor is it that you will be sending to jail?” asked Missoula family physician Eric Kress referencing the bill. “I stand before you and state that I am that kind of doctor, I have written an aid in dying prescription on three occasions.” He says he gave those three prescriptions out of ten who requested the option following the Baxter Decision. “All were male and all were rugged individualists,” he said, and each said it was important to preserve dignity in their deaths from painful, terminal conditions.
Another Missoula doctor, Tom Roberts, said he has had patients hoard non-lethal prescription medications to later kill themselves with an overdose. He worries how HB505 would affect doctors prescribing of some of those drugs.
”We want it to be an open and honest discussion, all of us would, when we’re going in to see a doctor,” he said. “Now we’re going to have this hanging over our heads as physicians.”
The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday. We reported earlier this session on a bill seeking to specifically allow physician-assisted suicide. That bill was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.