“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Back in 1986, that’s what Ronald Reagan considered “the nine most terrifying words in the English language,” and although I disagreed with our 40th president on a number of things he said and did in those days, that one struck home even to me.
Various Republican legislators in Helena seem to have missed Reagan’s point, as they appear determined to take away a basic civil right we Montanans have enjoyed for more than a decade. Would this in fact “help” us, as their constituents? You be the judge.
Since 2008, our state courts have recognized Montanans’ fundamental right of “death with dignity,” also known as “medical aid in dying.” That’s the right of a terminally ill patient, one who’s experiencing intractable suffering as death approaches, to seek a prescription of medication to hasten the dying process, end the suffering, and bring about a peaceful, compassionate close to life. The law considers this as part of the overarching right of “personal autonomy” — the right to control one’s own body — and it’s something that’s been guarded zealously for sound reasons. As the legal reasoning goes, it’s the patients’ bodies, lives, suffering and deaths that are involved, and the ultimate decisions regarding them should therefore be theirs to make, rather than the government and its agents making the decisions for them.
For a small but significant number of us, death will come slowly and cruelly. Whether caused by cancer, heart or respiratory failure or other maladies, it may be accompanied by protracted and relentless pain, nausea or breathlessness that cannot be alleviated or controlled, leaving the dying person yearning, desperately, for the misery to end. When the doctors confirm there’s nothing more they can do and the final result is certain and inevitable, the only question remaining is how prolonged the suffering will be.
Polls show that nearly 70% of Montanans support aid in dying as a protected right. And we’re not alone on the issue, as a growing number of our sister states and other countries extend similar guarantees to their citizens.
Now, however, some members of the Montana legislature want to extinguish this right entirely and threaten our doctors with life in prison — or potentially even the death penalty itself — for helping people under their care achieve a compassionate death through aid in dying.
Senate Bill 290 — described by opponents as the “Montana Physician Imprisonment Act” — aims to do precisely that, making a cooperating physician liable to criminal prosecution for homicide. A bipartisan coalition of libertarian-minded legislators has helped defeat similar bills in the past under the principle that the government has no business intruding into such intensely personal matters, where individual religious, spiritual, family and medical values rightfully hold sway.
But the legislature is currently weighing the arguments once again.
This is not a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. Harkening back to President Reagan’s witticism, is it really “helping” a dying man or woman for the government to foreclose the option of medical aid in dying for them at a time they may be crying out for it? Is seeking a peaceful end to suffering something the criminal law should prohibit and punish? Should our doctors, providing advice and comfort in our last dying moments, be criminally prosecuted for helping us in this final, essential way? One can only hope not.
Please contact your legislators in Helena and ask them to vote against this ill-conceived bill. Montana citizens should be entitled to make these critical end-of-life decisions for themselves, free from the government’s “help.”
Mark Connell is a retired attorney. He was lead counsel in representing the plaintiffs in Baxter v. Montana, which recognized the right of medical aid in dying in the state, and argued the case before the district court and the Montana Supreme Court.