Vermont, Montana Lead Battles Over Assisted Suicide in 2011

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 30, 2010   |   8:17PM   |   Montpelier, VT

Vermont and Montana will form ground zero for the debate over assisted suicide in 2011 as legislatures in both states are expected to tackle bills related to the subject.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is closely following the machinations of both legislatures and he provides further insight.

“The newly elected governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, is committed to legalizing assisted suicide in that state,” he said.

Shumlin told the lobbying arm of the pro-assisted suicide group Death With Dignity: “As Governor, I will strongly champion death with dignity legislation. I have been a sponsor of this legislation for multiple years and I have a track record of bringing people together to get tough things done.”

“I feel the same about patient choices at the end of life. As Governor, I would make this a top priority and in my State of the State address would ask the legislature to take this civil rights issue up and pass it prior to adjournment in 2011,” he added.

Schadenberg advocated Shumlin’s defeat, but he was able to top pro-life Republican candidate Brian Dubie. Now, pro-life groups will have to launch efforts to defeat the bill that is expected to come. They will likely find themselves working with religious, doctors and disability rights groups that have historically opposed such bills in other states.

Meanwhile, in Montana, Schadenberg says he and other euthanasia opponents will be closely watching the legislation in Montana — where both sides are expected to follow up on a state Supreme Court ruling that opens the door to assisted suicide. Legislation promoting and restricting assisted suicide is expected, including a measure pro-life groups will undoubtedly support.

“In Montana there will be competing bills. The assisted suicide lobby is trying to legalize assisted suicide in Montana after the Supreme Court of Montana offered physicians a ‘defense of consent’ in the Baxter decision,” he said. “Senator Greg Hinkle is bringing forth the Patient Protection Act to ensure that assisted suicide is not legal in Montana.”

The Montana high court determined that assisted suicide remains technically illegal but the physician,  if prosecuted, could use a “defense of consent.” Still, according to Schadenberg, the doctor is not immune from a lawsuit by the patient or family for negiligence. That’s different from Oregon and Washington, which have legal assisted suicides, and where, so long as the physician fulfills an undefined “best interest” standard, they are immune frm liability.

Rep. Dick Barrett, a Missoula Democrat, will introduce legislation this session to implement the decision and Niki Zupanic of ACLU Montana says his group will push for the adoption of the legislation. [related]

Hinkle, a Republican from Thompson Falls, will file a bill to ban assisted suicide, calling it “elder abuse.” His measure will receive support from pro-life groups like the Montana Family Foundation and Montana Right to Life.

The case was an appeal of a ruling District Judge Dorothy McCarter issued last December misusing the privacy clause of the state constitution to allow people to kill themselves with the help of a physician.