Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Brutal Disgrace

Seven years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Baxter, it freed  Montana physicians from the fear of criminal conviction for providing aid in dying to the terminally ill. Dying patients could request a life ending medication that would allow them to end suffering, to avoid the loss of autonomy that the treatment of terminal illness often brings in its wake, and to have a small measure of control over when and where and with whom to spend their final hours. The court said that in acceding to these requests from adult, terminally ill and mentally competent patients, doctors were clearly acting with their patients’ consent, and accordingly would have an affirmative defense if they were ever charged with a crime.

If that all sounds a bit legalistic, read the decision, because the court also made clear that in providing aid in dying, doctors would be acting in harmony with the rights of the terminally ill, established in law, to be autonomous, to make decisions about their own treatment, and to refuse treatment - even food or water - to hasten their own deaths. Providing aid in dying would recognize these rights and be an act of compassion and respect.

But now Rep.Brad Tschida wants to make it an act of murder.

House Bill 536, which Tschida brought to the House Judiciary Committee last Friday, is brutal in its simplicity and intent. Under the bill, physicians who respond to a request from their patients for aid in dying will no longer be protected. No matter how heartfelt the request, no matter how badly the patient is suffering, no matter how immanent death is, no matter how clear-headedly the patient is acting – no matter any of this, a doctor who honors a request for aid in dying can be charged with murder. The clear desires of the dying patient will be to no avail.

If there is anything more outrageous than this bill itself, it is the hearing it was accorded in the House Judiciary Committee. Because bills like this have been heard in the past, much of the testimony was familiar. Proponents claimed, as they have done over and over again, that providing aid in dying is susceptible to all sorts of terrible abuses, while producing not the slightest shred of evidence that these abuses have ever occurred anywhere, let alone in Montana. Opponents pled for their autonomy and liberty to be respected and told stories of how spouses, or children, or parents died at home, peacefully, and surrounded by family.

All that was to be expected. But what was not to be expected was the careless and callous way in which the hearing was conducted. Faced with a bill of significant social, legal and moral consequence, the committee chairman, Rep. Alan Doane, would allow only half an hour of testimony - fifteen minutes per side. After that time was up, he cut off testimony from opponents who had traveled across the state to testify. When members of the committee tried to elicit testimony from the opponents, he refused to recognize further committee questions.

 I have been in a lot of hearings on a lot of bills, but I have never seen a chairman act as abusively and recklessly as Doane did in the hearing on this bill. His performance was a gross disservice to the public, to his colleagues in the House, and to the duty to govern with intelligence and compassion. You can watch video of this entire sorry episode here.

HB 536 is ugly legislation, and its hearing was an utter disgrace. It is unworthy of the Montana legislature and the people of this state.