Montanans Against Assisted Suicide: New law would protect vulnerable, disabled and elderly

By: - February 3, 2023 2:33 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Anita Cameron rushed to her mother’s bedside in Washington, coming from Colorado to be with her.

The doctor said her mother’s body was shutting down, after battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Maybe she had a few days left. Cameron said the doctor offered medication that would hasten her mother’s death.

Instead, Cameron took her mother back to Colorado.

Her mother died 12 years later.

On one hand, the story is illustrative of the lesser care that people of color, including Cameron’s family who is Black and Latino, get. But Cameron, the minority outreach director for Not Dead Yet, said it also represents the danger of physician-assisted suicide.

Cameron told her story as part of a press conference held by a group, Montanans Against Assisted Suicide, which is campaigning in support of Senate Bill 210. The bill would remove a portion of Montana law that would give medical practitioners a defense in criminal cases of homicide.

Assisting anyone with suicide in the state of Montana is illegal, by code. But the Montana Supreme Court ruling in Baxter vs. State, established a defense to homicide in cases of physician-assisted suicide, while also leaving the door open for the legislature to close the loophole.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras speaks in favor Senate Bill 210 which would make it easier to prosecute a doctor for assisting a patient in dying. Sitting behind her and to the right is Sen. Carl Glimm of Kila who sponsored the bill (Photo via Montana Public Access Network).

If Montana successfully passes SB210, it would become the first state to reverse course on physician-assisted suicide. And, with a Republican supermajority in the legislature, plus the full-throated support of the Gianforte administration, which sent Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras to testify in support, SB210 has a good chance of passing.

Montanans Against Assisted Suicide presented a line-up of speakers – residents, advocates and doctors – who support the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila.

Bradley Williams, who testified at the legislature and is part of the group, said the paralyzing and high doses of medications used in lethal injections as well as physician-assisted suicide, which has medications taken orally by patients, is similar. He bristled at the claim that physician-assisted death was peaceful because the muscles are stopped, preventing the patient from speaking.

“That doesn’t mean they’re free from suffering,” Williams said.

The group said the legislation is a danger to disabled, elderly and vulnerable populations, and with Canada’s continued relaxed standards, they said the issue of physician-assisted suicide is a slippery slope.

Marsha Katz, a Montana resident, said the conversation on the topic needs to focus more on keeping patients comfortable and finding more support for end-of-life care.

“If we don’t focus on life with dignity, there’s no such thing as death with dignity,” she said.

She told about losing her husband, father and brother to cancer.

“My husband died right here in our bed,” she said, after making sure he was comfortable and pain-free.

“But disreputable laws and greed can push people toward wanting to gain financially,” she said.

Dr. Carley Robertson, who practices in the Hi-Line area, said the problem, framed as a medical one, is really a moral question.

“The essence is that it is wrong to kill an innocent life. These patients have not been convicted, and therefore, they are innocent,” Robertson said. “The quickest way to destroy the medical practice is by having healers and executioners become the same thing.”

Dr. Craig Treptow, a family physician in Great Falls, said the real issue may be one of mental health. He said a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that 59% of patients who considered physician-assisted suicide may be clinically depressed.

“Should we be treating the depression instead of helping them kill themselves?” he asked.

All of the speakers agreed that lawmakers couldn’t put in enough sideboards or protections to make the practice palatable.

“Consent is a red herring,” Robertson said. “There is no way to adequately control this action. And there’s no way to control coercion. And there’s no adequate way to put the state in charge.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.