We physicians who have worked with terminally ill patients know that the ways individuals experience death are unique, meaningful and deeply personal. For some, death is a welcome relief or a peaceful journey. For others it is painful and traumatic. Some people are very present, others reflective and still others look to the future up to their last breath. For many, it is a complex and visceral blend of countless emotions, memories and physical sensations.
Just as no two lives are lived the same, no two approaches to death are alike. Because all human life – and the conclusion of those lives – is so varied, it is crucial that each individual has the freedom to face it in the manner they choose.
For a few, because of their diagnosis, palliative care at the very end is either not available or not effective; death is the only relief. These few should be free to discuss all end-of-life options, including life-ending medications, with their physician. And doctors should be allowed under the law to answer all their questions honestly and provide the medication they seek without fear of imprisonment.
Montana has a long history of allowing people some say in the way they die. In 1991, passage of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act allowed people to have living wills. Then in 2009 this act was strengthened when the Baxter v. Montana decision made Montana the third U.S. state where physician aid in dying is a legal medical choice. In that decision the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the act specifically deferred to a patient’s own decisions and affords patients the right to control their own bodies at the end of life.
Last week, House Bill 505 was introduced by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel. This bill would undo the rights afforded under Baxter and weaken the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act by threatening physicians with imprisonment for answering a patient’s questions about a variety of death-hastening options, potentially including withdrawal of a ventilator or feeding tube. HB505 would send us to prison for 10 years for providing the choices that the Montana Supreme Court and the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act afforded.
We find this to be a gross misuse of government that at best will reduce important end-of-life conversations between doctors and patients to mere formalities, and at worst will result in inferior care and unnecessary suffering at the end of life. Montanans who have enjoyed freedom of choice throughout their adult lives deserve that same autonomy in their dying.
Please contact your legislator by calling (406) 444-4800 and tell them not to send doctors to prison. Vote no on HB505.
This opinion is signed by Missoula internist Thomas Roberts, Missoula oncologist Stephen Speckart, Missoula family medicine and palliative care physician Eric Kress, Helena gastroenterologist Kenneth Eden, Missoula pulmonologist Paul Loehnen, Missoula pathologist Bruce Beckwith and Missoula otolaryngologist Phillip Gardner.