Critical condition 

Aid in dying legislation faces long odds in Senate

Wade Nelson, 60, has spent the past five years battling three discrete forms of cancer in Thompson Falls. He's worked diligently to get his affairs in order—going over his will, cleaning his house of all the "junk"—and says he's at that point in life when end-of-life options are at the forefront of his mind.

That's not to say Nelson has one foot in the casket. Two of his cancers are currently in remission and his doctors tell him he has up to seven more good years left. While Nelson's "expiration date" is "down the road quite a ways," he wants to know what his options will be. He's watching closely as the Montana Legislature debates the ability to request life-ending medication from physicians.

"Right now, just in going forward, it would be comforting to know that option's there," says Nelson, an artist and former educator in Thompson Falls and Missoula. "It's like a spare tire in the trunk."

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on two bills relating to aid in dying. The first, Senate Bill 116, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, seeks to declare "assisted suicide or aid in dying" an outright violation of public policy.

click to enlarge The Montana Legislature is currently debating a terminally ill patient’s right to request life-ending medication from a physician. Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, left, proposes banning the practice outright while Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, hopes to regulate aid in dying. - PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY PUMPERNICKEL
  • Photo illustration by Pumpernickel
  • The Montana Legislature is currently debating a terminally ill patient’s right to request life-ending medication from a physician. Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, left, proposes banning the practice outright while Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, hopes to regulate aid in dying.

The second, Senate Bill 167, sponsored by Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, attempts to provide legal and regulatory clarity to the Montana Supreme Court's decision in Baxter v. Montana that guaranteed the right of terminally ill, mentally competent patients to seek aid in dying. It would make Montana the third state to pass a Death with Dignity Act.

"The people of Montana yearn for freedom, not government intrusion," Blewett told the committee Feb. 9. "When they are dying of a terminal illness, they want the freedom to make their own end-of-life decisions."

Citizens, doctors, attorneys and religious leaders seemed evenly split between Hinkle and Blewetts' proposals during testimony. Opponents to aid in dying called on the Judiciary Committee to pass SB 116 and defend them from state-sanctioned suicide. Proponents of SB 167 stepped forward with personal accounts and statistics from Oregon and Washington, where Death with Dignity Acts passed by citizen initiative.

"I'm here in support of Senate Bill 167," said the Reverend John C. Board of Helena, an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. "I am not here to convert you to my personal religious belief. But I am here to ask you not to impose the perspective of one faith upon all Montanans."

Nelson submitted written testimony favoring Blewett's Death with Dignity Act. As for SB 116, which was tabled in committee on Feb. 16, he remains outraged that his local legislator would launch such an attack on a constituent's rights.

"I have a great respect for political conservatives, but I'm just shocked at the disingenuousness of Sen. Hinkle and people like him who profess to be Tea Party, libertarian, very far right-wing anti-government conservatives who would then insert government into such a private affair," Nelson says. "My thoughts are these people are actually cloaking fundamentalist religious beliefs so it becomes law for everyone."

Despite the efforts of many to prove the necessity of a Death with Dignity Act in Montana, the Judiciary Committee tabled SB 167 on Feb. 10. The move mirrored action taken by Hawaii's Senate Health Committee on Feb. 7 when it unanimously voted down an attempt to legalize aid in dying. Blewett remains hopeful he can force his legislation out of committee.

"In the next week or two I intend to make a blast motion on the floor of the Senate to get SB 167 out of committee," Blewett told the Independent last week. "We have reasonable chance of prevailing on this motion."

Those closest to the issue agree that the importance of SB 167 lies in making sure abuses to the elderly and disabled are addressed without infringing on others' rights. The Montana Supreme Court's decision provided physicians legal cover in prescribing life-ending medication, but offered no specific regulatory measures. Without the definitions and rules contained in Blewett's bill, dangers persist for both patients and physicians.

"Physicians would prefer to have more of the regulatory conditions absolute," says Missoula cancer specialist Stephen Speckart. "They'd feel more secure with it, and they would feel a bit better with regard to the risk of prosecution."

If SB 167 does make it to the Senate floor, nonprofit Compassion and Choices feels it's done the legwork necessary for lawmakers to have an informed debate.

"No matter how you feel on the issue, it's an important issue in the state right now," says Compassion and Choices campaign coordinator Jessica Grennan. "We've traveled. We've talked to people. We've done public presentations from Glendive all the way to Libby meeting with electeds and having honest conversations."

Whether those conversations will be enough to swing the Montana Legislature toward SB 167 looms large for terminally ill individuals in Montana. Nelson feels his peace of mind about his last days is very much on the line. He says he may not even take the medication when the time comes, but just having the option open is an invaluable comfort.

"To be denied that right down the road is disconcerting to me now, because I cannot get my affairs in order knowing that the government is going to interfere at the last minute," Nelson says. "I'm a bit of a coward. I don't want to languish in pain or drug-sodden mindlessness. When the time comes, I would love to be able to say 'Yes' or 'No' and have that be my choice."

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