HELENA – The state House on Thursday narrowly endorsed a bill outlawing physician-assisted suicide in Montana – just three weeks after rejecting a similar bill by the same two-vote margin.
The Montana House voted 51-49 to approve House Bill 477, which adds “physician-assisted suicide” to the crime already in state law of “aiding or soliciting suicide.” It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, faces a final vote Friday before it can advance to the Senate.
Bennett said Montana already has a high suicide rate, and that in Oregon, which allows assisted suicide, the suicide rate is much higher than the national average.
He also said he’s worried that if Montana doesn’t outlaw physician-assisted suicide, “we will go from physician-assisted suicide to government-assisted suicide,” perhaps by denying life-saving treatment to patients covered by government health insurance.
Three weeks ago, the House voted 51-49 to kill a bill that said if a physician helps someone die, the victim’s consent cannot be used to defend against a charge of murder brought against the physician.
On that vote, 10 Republicans joined all 41 House Democrats to defeat HB328 from Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula.
On Thursday, all 41 House Democrats and only eight Republicans opposed HB477.
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Among the Republicans opposing both bills was Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville.
“There are some areas where the state should not intervene in,” he said Thursday on the House floor. “This is one of them. It is my life. I will live it the way I want.”
Other opponents of HB477 said it’s a difficult situation when a physician is advising patients faced with constant pain during the final days of their lives, and that the state should not be inserting itself into that discussion.
“The patient ... should not be limited by this Legislature, to deny a physician options when they face intolerable suffering,” said Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings. “Give these folks the dignity to die in the manner of their choosing.”
She also said in Washington and Oregon, which allow physician-assisted suicide, there’s been no documented abuse of this “right to privacy.”
The Montana Supreme Court in 2009 ruled that while a right to die by physician-assisted suicide is not guaranteed by the state Constitution, there is no legal precedent that says such assistance is against “public policy.”
Since the decision, numerous legislators have attempted to pass bills stating that public policy allows or forbids physician-assisted suicide in Montana, but none of them has become law.
Both HB477 and the bill defeated three weeks ago say that physician-assisted suicide in Montana is against “public policy.”