Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, appointed himself leader of the opposition to physician-assisted suicide earlier this spring by declaring his intent to draft a legislative ban of the contested practice. But for someone charged with heading one side of this important debate, he commands an embarrassingly limited understanding of the issue at hand.
Legislators on both sides are eager to clarify the Montana Supreme Court's December ruling that gave physicians a legal defense in prescribing life-ending medication to terminally ill, mentally competent patients. Proponents point to legislation already on the books in Oregon and Washington that provides strict criteria for the practice—psychiatric evaluations, written consent observed by an impartial witness, etc.—as a good starting point for building on the court's decision.
Hinkle's talking points are, shall we say, less researched. He's claimed for weeks that physician-assisted suicide will wrongfully endanger patients who might actually survive their illness. Even patients with stable HIV and years to live could receive a prescription, he says, and he's gone on record stating that once medication is prescribed, a patient's life is out of his or her hands. Death is under the control, he says, of a doctor or family member.
Hinkle couldn't be more wrong. Physician-assisted suicide is a voluntary alternative for those suffering extreme pain or indignity at the end of life. In 2009, doctors in Oregon prescribed life-ending medication to 95 patients, only 53 of whom elected to take it. The majority of those were already in hospice care.
When we spoke with Hinkle, he repeatedly referred to the medication as if it were administered intravenously. Wrong again. The most common form is an oral dose of a barbiturate—or depressant. As a key voice in this debate, he should know that.
Hinkle says his main reason for drafting the Montana Patient Protection Act is to stop greedy heirs seeking family inheritance from coercing their elders into requesting life-ending medication. But the argument seems to be more a smokescreen for ideological unease than informed opinion. (And, some believe, simply a front for the conservative Montana Family Foundation's interests.) If Hinkle bothered to read Washington or Oregon's laws—which he admits he hasn't—he might find his concerns for the elderly adequately addressed.
Given Hinkle's comments, and his serious lack of working knowledge of physician-assisted suicide, we can only hope someone will act accordingly and aid his bill in dying.