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Bill saying consent not a defense for doctor-assisted suicide fails to pass House; lawmaker says vote was error

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HELENA – In a surprise shift, the Montana Legislature on Wednesday voted down a bill that would have clarified that a patient’s consent is not a defense for a doctor who assists someone in ending their own life.

After passing second reading on a 52-48 vote Tuesday, the bill failed to clear the House on a 50-50 tie Wednesday. Of the four lawmakers who changed their vote, one said afterward that she voted against the measure in error.

“It was a mistake,” said Rep. Peggy Webb, R-Billings, who changed from a vote for the bill Tuesday to a vote against Wednesday. “I hit yes and then thought, ‘No, I don’t want assisted suicide,’ and changed the vote. It was too late to change it back.” Her vote went from yes to no.

Votes can’t be changed if they would alter the outcome of the vote, which was the case with Webb's vote. House Bill 365 was carried by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula.

Webb said she didn’t have a change of heart on the bill. “I think life is sacred from birth to death and I think it should be a natural death. I don’t think we should play god. I know people who are suffering but doctors can make them comfortable in most cases.”

In 2009 the Montana Supreme Court in a narrow ruling said doctors helping patients end their own life was not illegal, but did not answer the question of it is a right guaranteed under the state's Constitution.

After the vote Wednesday, Tschida said while he was disappointed with the outcome he’s seen support for the legislation increase over the last few sessions. In 2015 a similar bill failed on a 49-51 vote on second reading.

He didn’t blame Webb for the mistake, said the vote was emotional and that he fully expected some changes.

“No snowflake in an avalanche feels guilty,” he said. “Human beings are emotional creatures more than they are rational.”

Tschida added if he expects to see the bill resurface before future Legislatures and that it's something the courts need to answer clearly. "I don’t believe it’s right for (people) to go out of this world at the hands of another," he said.

Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, changed his vote from no to a yes. He feels that the Montana Supreme Court needs to decide if the state’s constitution allows for doctor-assisted suicide or not. He also said he wants to make sure insurance companies aren’t pushing assisted suicide as a way to spend less on long-term or end-of-life care.

Reps. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings, and Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, could not be reached for comment after the vote. Both changed from yes to no votes.

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