Lawmakers to grapple with life and death issues in 2015

Every two years issues involving life and death take center stage at some point during Montana’s 90-day legislative session.

The Montana Legislature begins its 64th biennial session on Monday, and soon committee rooms will again fill up with opponents and proponents delivering dramatic, passionate and sometimes tearful testimony on bills ranging from abortion to the death penalty to physician-assisted suicide.

Here’s a look at some of the beginning- and end-of-life issues lawmakers will grapple with over the next four months.

Death penalty

Montana is among 32 states that has the death penalty, but over the two sessions opponents have inched closer to abolishing the practice.

In 2009 and 2011, measures to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility for parole passed the Republican-controlled Senate before dying in the House.

In 2013, a nearly identical Republican-backed measure died in the House Judiciary Committee.

Already, two Senate lawmakers have requested legislation for the 2015 session to end the death penalty.

Opposition to the death penalty has drawn a diverse coalition of unlikely political bedfellows with some conservatives now coming on board.

The Montana Abolition Coalition is a bipartisan group of advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum working together to end the death penalty in Montana.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director for American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

ACLU Montana is among 11 organizations that make up the Montana Abolition Coalition. Many of those groups, including the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Catholic Conference, ACLU Montana and the Montana Association of Churches are often at odds on social policy issues such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide and nondiscrimination measures. But when it comes to the death penalty, they find common ground.

“We know we’re getting closer on that issue. Whether or not this is the session where it happens, we’re certainly hopeful on that,” said Matt Brower of the Montana Catholic Conference.

Increasingly conservative lawmakers are adding their voice of opposition to the death penalty because of mistakes in the judicial system and the high cost associated with executing prisoners.

“More and more legislators are coming to the opinion that the death penalty in Montana is a broken system that can’t be fixed,” Zupanic said. “These legislators come to this position from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

Brower said the bipartisan nature of the opposition is encouraging.

“It’s energizing to be able to come together and recognize we’re trying to push this in a same direction,” Brower said. “It’s a very hopeful experience when you get to collaborate with those you don’t always agree with.”

Aid in dying

In 2009 the Montana Supreme Court ruled in the case of Baxter v. Montana that nothing in state law prohibits physician-assisted suicide.

Since then supporters of the ruling have sought to codify the decision by passing measures that explicitly protect a patient’s right to seek end-of-life aid in dying. Opponents, many of whom say the practice could open the door to a wave of elder abuse, have likewise attempted to pass laws making physician-assisted suicide illegal.

During the 2013 legislative session, the Montana Senate struck down House Bill 505, which would have imprisoned doctors for providing aid in dying to terminally ill patients.

In 2015, both sides are gearing up again for the same fight.

“We think we have a right under our state Constitution to make personal medical decisions with full autonomy, and we think that includes the right to work with your physician to use medication that would hasten end-of-life suffering,” Zupanic said.

Brower said opposition to groups hoping to codify the Baxter decision will be steadfast again in 2015.

“Physician-assisted suicide is going to be a significant issue for us this session, as it was last session,” Brower said. “That’s something we’re very concerned about because we see it as legislation that is providing opportunities that are just ripe for elder abuse.”

Abortion

Efforts to restrict access to abortion services, cut state funding to programs that help fund abortion services, or measures aimed at adding legal protections to unborn fetuses are likely to come up again in 2015.

Anti-abortion advocates scored a victory in 2013 when they passed HB 391, a bill requiring minor-age girls to get notarized parental consent before they could obtain an abortion. A nearly identical measure that year would have sent the proposed law to the voters as a referendum.

HB 391 passed the Legislature, and as part of a long-term strategy to overturn the law, Gov. Steve Bullock allowed the bill to become law without his signature. A month after the 2013 Legislature adjourned Planned Parenthood of Montana sued to block the law. That lawsuit is still underway.

In the meantime, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are gearing up for another fight in 2015, though it’s too early to say what bills will be priorities in the upcoming session.

The Montana Family Foundation, which is one of the leading anti-abortion advocacy groups in the state, did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment on their 2015 legislative agenda.

Brower did not outline a specific abortion-related policy agenda either.

“Issues related to the beginning of life, issues of abortion, that’s always going to be on our radar screen, trying to find ways to make headway there,” Brower said.

Zupanic said the ACLU and other pro-abortion rights groups will work to to hold the line on abortion laws in Montana.