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Bill to imprison doctors for aid in dying defeated in Montana Legislature

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(Helena, Mont. – Apr. 15, 2013) The nation’s leading end-of-life choice advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, praised the Montana Senate today for reversing course and rejecting a House-passed bill that would imprison doctors for up to 10 years if they provide aid in dying to terminally ill patients. The 27-23 bipartisan vote against the so-called Doctor Imprisonment Act, HB505, came after both Democrats and Republicans spoke out against the legislation. Just last week, the Senate voted 31-17 to approve a motion to “blast” the legislation out of committee to the Senate floor.

“This bipartisan vote is a win for Montanans and the doctors who honor the wishes of their terminally ill patients by supporting their choice to die with dignity on their own terms,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, a nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before becoming a private attorney and a Chief Petitioner of the first-in-the nation 1994 Oregon Death with Dignity Act. “The legislature did the right thing by honoring the wishes of the vast majority of Montanans who don’t want the government dictating their medical treatment at the end of their lives. Today’s vote is in line with the national trend to approve aid in dying, not criminalize it.”

If HB 505 had become law, it would have gutted a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling in Baxter v. Montana, a case brought by Compassion & Choices. The court confirmed it does not violate state public policy in Montana for a physician to provide aid in dying to a mentally competent, terminally ill adult.

“If HB505 had passed, I could have gone to prison for providing the medical care my terminally ill patients request,” said Dr. Eric Kress, a family physician at Western Montana Clinic, who has written aid in dying prescriptions for three patients since the Baxter decision. Kress narrated a statewide radio campaign opposing HB 505, appeared in print ads featuring quotes from other doctors opposed to HB 505 and authored an oped opposing HB 505 published last week in The Missoulian. “The overwhelmingly positive public support I have received has strengthened my resolve to ensure this right is never taken away.”

In contrast to Montana, efforts promoting patient choice at the end-of-life are underway in numerous other diverse states, including Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont. In February, the Vermont Senate gave final approval to a “Death with Dignity” bill that would protect doctors from criminal or civil liability when treating terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives.

A national poll last May by Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed 84 percent of voters agree that: “How a terminally ill person chooses to end his/her life should be an individual decision and not a government decision.”

A poll of 605 likely Montana voters conducted this month by Global Strategy Group shows 73 percent of them oppose HB 505, including 81 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Republicans. The poll also reveals that 67 percent of voters will be less likely to vote for a legislator who supported HB 505, including 53 percent who said they will be much less likely. Nearly seven out 10 voters (69%) support allowing a mentally competent 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, including 48% who strongly support such a choice.


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