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Montana Doctors Could Face Jail Time for Assisted Suicide

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Dr. Eric Kress has been a family physician for 26 years, but he will never forget the terminally ill patient who called him a "coward" for hesitating to prescribe him lethal medication that would ease his pain and help him die.

The man was a "rugged individualist," dying a "hard death" from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and eventually ends in death.

"This once-strong man had been reduced to 120 pounds of skin and bone," said Kress, 50, of Missoula, Mont.  "He could not swallow or walk.  He would often be found weeping and bemoaning the miserable fate that had befallen him.  He begged his wife to end his suffering."

Weeks later, the man took his own life with pain-killing medication he had stockpiled, but Kress never forgot his words.  Since then, he has helped three other patients end their lives -- all with the consent of their families.

In 2009, the state Supreme Court ruled narrowly in Baxter v. Montana that state law protects doctors from prosecution when helping terminally ill patients die, but it fell short of addressing the larger question of whether physician-assisted suicide was a guaranteed right under the state constitution.

But on Thursday, the Montana Senate gave a preliminary nod to a House-passed bill that would criminalize physician-assisted suicide.  If it passes two more readings on Friday and Saturday, HB 505 could soon be on the desk of Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Kress has become the public face of that raging debate, testifying in the legislature and writing an April 7 column in the local newspaper, the Missoulian.

"This man affected me," Kress wrote about the man with ALS.  "What kind of man or doctor am I?  Am I just going to sit idly by watching a proud man suffer and die, or am I going to be brave and do what it takes to help people at the end of life?  I spent many sleepless nights pondering this question."

Now, Kress could face 10 years in prison if he continues to help patients die.

Supporters of HB 505, such as Montanans Against Assisted Suicide, argue that if the bill is enacted "there will be a clear statement going forward that assisted suicide is not legal."

"The issue deserves the governor's attention, and he needs to address it," said organization coordinator Bradley D. Williams.

The move comes as at least five states are considering legalizing the practice: Vermont, New Jersey, Kansas, Hawaii and Massachusetts.  Already, both Oregon and Washington state have so-called Death With Dignity laws in place.

Kress told ABC News that he would not continue to help terminally ill patients die if the bill becomes law. "I am not a physician that wants to go to jail," he said.

"I always stress that the issue of suicide is a very small part of my practice," he said.  "Every day I see depressed patients, and I spend so much time with them figuring out who is suicidal and who isn't than with aiding in dying.  At times, I've had the privilege, but the majority of my work is preventing them from dying."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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