Compassion & Choices in public ed effort

Campaign highlights assisted suicide ruling

In early April, Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee said at a press conference to announce that "aid in dying" — more often referred to as assisted suicide — is being implemented in Montana following a Montana Supreme Court decision to allow it in late December.

The press event also, she said, marked the second phase of a public education effort under way by Compassion & Choices. The group also released results of public opinion polls conducted on this topic in the state.

"Our purpose, with this public education effort, is to prompt citizen awareness — to make the citizens of Montana aware that the Montana Supreme Court has granted them the right to ask for aid in dying — and also, to prompt citizen involvement," Lee said.

There is a contrast between Oregon and Washington, the first and second states in the United States respectively to permit assisted suicide with a lethal dose of medication prescribed by a physician.

"Montana is different from Oregon," Lee said. "The state that pioneered aid in dying had its citizens involved right from the beginning. It was passed by citizen initiative. Citizens knew about it, and they were invested in it; and they knew that this is what they wanted for themselves, right from the get-go."

Lee noted that when the Oregon legislature sought to overturn that state's Death with Dignity law, it was citizens who prevented their success in overturning the law.

"So, the citizens of Montana need to be aware, and the citizens of Montana will need to be involved in protecting this court ruling," she said.

An earlier element of the public education effort was to run ads during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The group also published ads in newspapers in Helena, MT. Lee said there would also be direct mailings.

"For younger people glued to electronic devices, there will be Internet banner announcements, and we will also have broadcast placements," she said.

A goal of the press conference, held at the Montana Capitol Building, was to "assure people that the Montana Supreme Court ruling in Baxter [v. Montana] is being implemented," she said.

"Doctors are learning about the ruling; they're responding to their patients' requests, according to the court's guidelines and according to their personal, ethical, [and] moral position," Lee explained. "Hospices and provider institutions are developing policies, and they are serving their patients, according to these policies."

Lee described the "progress" in implementing the court ruling decision in Montana was similar to the progress that had been made shortly after laws came online in Oregon in 1997 and in Washington in 2008.

"It's perfectly fine to begin conversations with your family, with your loved ones, and with your doctor about aid in dying," she said.

She noted that in Montana, the court's ruling indicated there would be no criminal prosecution of a physicians who provides a lethal prescription for a patient to then ingest.

The ruling in Montana is different from Oregon in that it does not have complex regulations that physicians and patient must follow to legally pursue assisted suicide. However, Lee noted in a Q&A session that the Montana Supreme Court's decision was "not without guidelines."

That ruling "specified that this is for terminally ill people — or people who are likely to die within six months. It's for mentally competent people — people who are fully decisionally capable. It's for adults, and it's for people who can self-administer the medication — it's not that the doctor would be administering the medication," Lee explained.

When asked how many people Compassion & Choices was aware of who had taken advantage of their right to assisted suicide, Lee said that she would only say "one or more."

"I think out of concern — really quite an enormous concern for discretion and protecting people from what might turn into sort of vigorous investigation to try and discern who they might have been, I think that I would like to leave it to one or more patients have used the law and died by ingesting life-ending medication in Montana," Lee said.

Voter opinion poll results

Two separate public opinion surveys were conducted in Montana by David Binder Research, based in San Francisco. Binder, who participated in a related teleconference of the event, said the first survey was conducted with voters between Jan. 20 and 24 with 600 voters statewide, following the Dec. 31 ruling.

After running ads during the Winter Olympics, the research firm conducted a second survey between March 3 and 5.

"So, in two separate surveys, we found very consistent findings, and those findings are consistent in the sense that they show strong support for end-of-life choices.

In the March survey, for example, Binder said the following question was put to voters who participated in the survey: "Recently, there's been some discussion in the news about the issue of end-of-life choice. In general, do you support or oppose allowing dying patients in severe distress to make their own end-of-life choice to receive a prescription for life-ending medication?"

The survey found 60% of Montana voters said they support end-of-life choices, while 24% opposed.

"We also found that that figure did not significantly differ by political party affiliation," Binder said. "There was more support from Democrats than Republicans, but Republicans also showed a majority support: 69% of Democrats; 53% of Republicans, and 61% of Independents."