Montana Senate Committee Approves Physician Imprisonment Act

Bill would take away the right of terminally ill Montanans to access a peaceful death
February 26, 2021

The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to advance a bill that would allow the state to prosecute doctors and imprison them or sentence them to death, simply for writing a prescription for aid-in-dying medication for a mentally capable terminally ill adult who requests it to peacefully end their suffering.

Despite hearing from dozens of Montanans who oppose the bill, including doctors, hospice workers, people living with a terminal illness, and the family members of those who’ve utilized medical aid in dying, the committee voted 7-4 to recommend the bill be heard by the full Senate.

Family Nurse Practitioner Leslie Mutchler testified that her son, TJ Mutchler, used medical aid in dying when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at age 36. “TJ gained so much peace of mind when he got the prescription, and ultimately the medications, knowing he could be in control at the end,” she told the committee. “We were fortunate that TJ had a relationship with a physician that would provide him the medication. However, because of the continued threat of laws to criminalize medical aid in dying, physicians are reluctant to provide this service. This is a decision that should be made between a person and their medical provider without interference from the government or threat of prosecution.” Leslie is also the daughter of Bob Baxter, the plaintiff in the 2009 State Supreme Court decision that authorized medical aid in dying in Montana.

Attorney and Bioethicist Jan VanRiper told legislators, “Please do not take this important choice and the benefits to end-of-life experiences away from Montanans.  Those who suffer from terminal illnesses are vulnerable by the very nature of their conditions, and they should be afforded the care and choice they prefer at that stage.  Please do not make them suffer needlessly like some of my relatives had to before this choice was legal in Montana.”

“Medical aid in dying has been authorized for more than 40 years across all of the authorized jurisdictions, without a single documented instance of coercion, abuse or misuse of the law, said Missoula resident and Compassion & Choices National Volunteer Program Manager Amy Hetzler. “Terminally ill Montanans shouldn’t have to suffer needlessly at the end of life and doctors shouldn’t have to worry about being second-guessed by prosecutors when treating dying patients for pain and suffering.”

Medical aid in dying allows a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with six months or less to live the option to request a prescription from their doctor that they can choose to take if their suffering becomes unbearable. The medication allows them to die peacefully in their sleep at a time of their choosing.

Nearly 7 out of 10 Montana voters (69%) said they support allowing a mentally capable adult, who is dying of a terminal disease and in extreme pain, to choose to end his or her life in a humane and dignified way, according to a Global Strategy Group survey in April 2013.

Introduced by Sen. Carl Glimm (R-Montana, State Senate District 2), the text of SB 290 states: “[A]id in dying is against public policy, and a patient’s consent to physician aid in dying is not a defense to a charge of homicide against the aiding physician.” Deliberate homicide in Montana is punishable by a maximum sentence of the death penalty and minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

SB 290 would overturn the 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision in a suit filed by Compassion & Choices on behalf of a terminally ill truck driver from Billings, Bob Baxter. The court ruled in the case, Baxter v. Montana, that: “…we find no indication in Montana law that physician aid in dying provided to terminally ill, mentally competent adult patients is against public policy.”

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