HELENA, Montana — A bill that would allow doctors to be criminally prosecuted for prescribing life-ending medication to terminally ill patients who ask for it failed Tuesday by a narrow vote in the House.
House Bill 328 was rejected 51-49 after a lengthy debate.
The Legislature has struggled to clarify that the practice is specifically legal or illegal since the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that nothing in state law prohibits physicians from giving aid in dying. The high court also said at the time that doctors could use a patient's request for the medication as a defense against any criminal charges.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, sponsored the bill and said it would not take away a person's choice to die, but it would disallow a doctor's involvement in the process. "Suicide is a solo act. But if another person takes part it is a homicide," he said, referring to Montana law.
Opponents said the Legislature should not interfere in decisions made by a doctor and a patient. "Dying is very difficult and sometimes painful, and as a Legislature we have no business interfering with this very personal process," said Democratic Rep. Tom Woods of Bozeman.
A competing bill aiming to prohibit the prosecution of doctors who prescribe such medication and give doctors guidelines in these situations has been tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senate Bill 202, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dick Barrett of Missoula, also would give terminally ill patients the right to request medication to end their life. Barrett has introduced legislation twice before to delineate parameters for aid in helping a person to die.
A third related bill aiming to prohibit and criminalize a doctor's role in the process is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday. Republican Rep. Jerry Bennett of Libby will present House Bill 477 in the House Judiciary Committee. The measure would make "physician-assisted suicide" a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, or both.
Without formal laws guiding the procedure, no state reporting on these deaths is required in Montana, and it is unknown how common the practice is. A Missoula doctor said in a public hearing at the Capitol earlier this month that he has been involved in about 10 cases.