Bill aims to ban physician-assisted suicide in Montana

Posted at 4:10 PM, Jan 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-30 00:14:48-05

HELENA – A bill that would make it illegal for doctors to help their patients take their own life had its first hearing at the state capitol Tuesday.

House Bill 284 would open doctors up to possible homicide charges if they were to comply with patients’ wishes and speed up a patient’s death by prescribing a lethal dose of medication.

Physician-assisted suicide is not explicitly legal in Montana, but a ruling in the 2009 Montana Supreme Court case Baxter v. Montana created what some call a loophole that allows the practice.

The 5-2 ruling compared physician-assisted suicide with a patient’s desire to be taken off life support.

“In physician aid in dying,” the ruling said, “the final death-causing act lies in the patient’s hands.”

Therefore, physicians can currently defend themselves from homicide charges by pointing to the patient’s own choice to take their life. However, HB 284 would take away a doctor’s right to use consent as a defense to homicide.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Carl Glimm, R – Kila, compared physician-assisted suicide with Montana’s high suicide rate, suggesting it sends the wrong message to people about suicide as a solution.

“Every session this body takes up legislation and spending bills to try and curb the suicide frequency in our veterans, our youth and our Native American populations,” Glimm said. “This bill is an opportunity to send a consistent message about suicide from young to old, to healthy to sick that it’s not a good option.”

Some of those who spoke in opposition to the bill see things differently.

Roberta King is the daughter of Robert Baxter, the plaintiff in the Montana Supreme Court case. King testified at Tuesday’s hearing to say the choice should be left to the patient, not the government.

“People in Montana believe that we know how to take care of ourselves without government interference. We trust that our doctors will give us the best possible medical advice, and the Montana Supreme Court was right to agree,” King said.

A similar bill to outlaw physician-assisted suicide failed in Montana during the 2017 legislature. On the other hand, bills to legalize the practice have also stumbled in the past.