Legislative panels hear opposing right-to-die bills

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Right-to-die legislation supporter Roberta King told her father's story in two hearings Tuesday as competing bills on the issue were introduced by Missoula lawmakers in the House and Senate.

King's father, Robert Baxter, filed the right-to-die lawsuit decided by the Montana Supreme Court in 2009. Baxter died of lymphoma in 2008 — on the day a district judge ruled that Baxter had a right to end his life by ingesting medication. The state's high court said nothing in state law prohibits physicians from giving aid in dying, effectively making Montana the third state to legalize the practice.

"I urge you not to take away the choice Baxter worked so hard for," King told lawmakers during a hearing on House Bill 328 in the Judiciary Committee.

Under the measure, introduced by Republican Rep. Brad Tschida, doctors could be criminally prosecuted for prescribing life-ending medication to terminally ill patients who request it.

"I realize this is a difficult divisive issue," he said. "Suicide is an individual act, and no one is taking away that right."

It would just disallow a doctor's involvement in that process, he said.

Senate Bill 202, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dick Barrett, would create a law giving terminally-ill patients the right to request medication to end their life and prohibit the prosecution of doctors who prescribe the medication. He said the bill would give guidelines for physicians who want to do that, a move that could make people feel more comfortable about that practice.

This is the third time Barrett has introduced legislation to delineate parameters for aid in helping a person to die.

Supporters of Barrett's bill said allowing a doctor to prescribe life-ending medication allows for a more dignified death and gives control to the person suffering.

Dr. Eric Kress said he's been involved in about 10 of these cases and said he's done 50 hours of study and research into how to administer prescriptions to mentally competent, terminally ill patients who ask him for help.

"Other doctors who haven't done this need a framework," he said. "If they tweak this law," he said referring to House Bill 328, "I will be the one who will go to jail."

The lack of regulations and reporting requirements under the Supreme Court's ruling in Montana makes it impossible to know how many people have died after administering medication prescribed by a physician.

Four other states allow patients to seek aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Vermont and New Mexico.

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