Montana came SO close to closing the door to assisted suicide

The status of assisted suicide in the US state of Montana is curiously ambiguous. In 2009 the Montana Supreme Court ruled that “a terminally ill patient’s consent to physician aid in dying constitutes a statutory defense to a charge of homicide against the aiding physician”. This effectively permitted assisted suicide – without input from the Montana legislature.

Ever since then, opponents and supporters of assisted suicide have tried almost every year to introduce bills to regulate or to ban assisted suicide. None of them have succeeded.

The latest bill to ban assisted suicide almost succeeded but failed at the very last minute in a classic case of legislative comedy.

The bill, which declared that a patient’s consent would not be a defense for a doctor who assisted someone in ending their life, passed a second reading on a 52-48 vote on Tuesday. But on the third reading on Wednesday, four legislators changed their votes and the result was tied 50-50. Hence the bill was defeated.

What explained the change?

Two lawmakers changed their vote to support assisted suicide, making Wednesday’s vote 50-50. Then one decided not to support it, making it 51-49, and another, Peggy Webb, a Republican who opposes assisted suicide, made a mistake and voted for it, making it 50-50.

Such is life.

“It was a mistake,” said Ms Webb. “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.”

She said that she remained opposed. “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.”

The sponsor of the bill, Brad Tschida, was philosophical about his colleague’s error. “No snowflake in an avalanche feels guilty,” he said. “Human beings are emotional creatures more than they are rational.” 

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