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House panel debates penalties for assisted suicide

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 20, 2013 at 5:23 pm •  Published: February 20, 2013

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Outlawing physician-assisted suicide in Montana would protect the elderly from being abused and keep the integrity of the medical profession intact, supporters of a bill to ban the practice told lawmakers Wednesday.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering the bill sponsored by its chairman, Republican Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel, to penalize the doctors and caregivers who participate in the practice.

"Basically House Bill 505 is written to target elder abuse," Kerns said. "And the fear that comes with that idea."

The Legislature has struggled with physician-assisted suicide since a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling that said nothing in state law prohibits it. The ruling effectively made Montana the third state to legalize the practice, though the lack of regulations and reporting requirements makes it impossible to know how many physician-assisted suicides have taken place.

Last week, a Senate committee tabled a bill regulating assisted suicide, just as it did during the 2011 session. Kerns' bill seeks to go in the opposite direction, outlawing rather than regulating the practice.

A similar measure also failed to receive sufficient lawmaker support in 2011.

Supporters of Kerns' bill said assisted suicide is unnecessary because end-of-life palliative care is sufficient to aid in the process of death and it may damage the medical profession.

"We believe that providers should never be placed in situations that undermine and/or threaten the trust or integrity of the medical profession," said Michael Cox, the spiritual care director at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.

Opponents of the bill said the measure would limit the personal choices those with terminal or severely debilitating illnesses. The bill also would limit patients' access to information and put doctors and caregivers who help people end their lives at risk of prosecution, they said.

One of the opponents was the daughter of Robert Baxter, the man who filed the assisted-suicide lawsuit decided by the Montana Supreme Court in 2009. Baxter died of lymphoma Dec. 5, 2008 — the day a district judge ruled that Baxter had a right to end his life by ingesting medication.

Roberta King said Wednesday her father wanted to follow the law.

"There were a lot of options he could have taken, but he wanted to be an upstanding citizen. He wanted his doctor to help aid in his dying," she said.

Dustin Hankinson, a disability activist from Missoula with severe muscular dystrophy, said the bill hinders doctors' ability to practice their profession with compassion.

"Basically doctors have the requirement to do no harm," Hankinson said. "And at some point in a terminal illness, the idea of allowing someone to go through treatment causes more harm than ceasing the treatment itself."

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.