By Kathleen Gilbert

HELENA, Montana, December 8, 2008 ( – A Montana district court has decreed that Montana residents deemed competent and terminally ill have the right to commit suicide, making Montana the third state in which assisted suicide is legal, following Washington and Oregon. 

“The Montana constitutional rights of individual privacy and human dignity, taken together, encompass the right of a competent terminally [ill] patient to die with dignity,” wrote Judge Dorothy McCarter in the opinion for Montana’s First Judicial District Court, issued late Friday. 

The conclusion goes on to specify that this includes the patient’s option to “obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that the patient may take on his own if and when he decides to terminate his life.” 

Robert Baxter, a 75-year-old retired truck driver suffering from terminal lymphocytic leukemia, filed the lawsuit in November 2007, along with four physicians, seeking legal sanction for physician assisted patient suicide.  The assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, assisted their case.

“It’s always been a very important thing with me,” said Baxter in Compassion & Choices Magazine. “I’ve just watched people suffer so badly when they died, and it goes on every day. You can just see it in their eyes: ‘Why am I having to go through this terrible part of my life, when we do it for animals? We put them out of their misery.’

“I just feel if we can do it for animals,” Baxter said, “we can do it for human beings.” 

The case is likely to be appealed, as Attorney General Mike McGrath asserted that the “right to die” is “a major constitutional issue and the Supreme Court should rule on it.”  McGrath is to be sworn in as Chief Justice of Montana’s Supreme Court in January.

Against the objection that such a ruling violates the State’s interest in preserving life, the Court stated that “it is difficult to imagine a compelling interest in preserving the life of an individual who is suffering pain and the indignity of his disease, whose life is going to end within a relatively short period of time, and for whom palliative care is inadequate to satisfy his personal desire to die with dignity.”

The State, represented by McGrath, also objected that the court did not have the authority to decide the issue apart from the legislative process.  In response, the ruling stated that the right to assisted suicide “is a constitutional question to be decided by the courts.”  It argued that, because the Court would eventually consider the validity of any assisted suicide law passed in the legislature, the current action makes the Court “simply the first in line to deal with the issue, followed by the legislature to implement that right.”

The court did not address whether doctors have the right to refuse such a request, saying that such concerns could be addressed by the state. 

(To see the court ruling, go to:

Bioethicist Wesley Smith called the ruling “radically broad and hubristic.”

“Why limit the right to people diagnosed with a terminal illness?” asked Smith.  “If I want to die because John McCain lost the election and I can’t stand the idea of an Obama Presidency, that’s my business and nobody has a right to interfere.”  Smith also contended that the ruling opens the door to active euthanasia, as it concedes that a person has a right to be assisted in dying.

“What is really happening is a coup d’ culture,” Smith lamented, referring to a trend of what he calls the “mystery of life” jurisprudence, which allows individuals’ worldviews to override public policy considerations. 

“It is a toppling of the current social order that is based in Judeo/Christian moral philosophy – in part through court rulings based on autonomy – with the eventual legal implementation of a dramatically different value system founded in utilitarianism [and] hedonism,” he said.  “Once that process is complete, judicial rulings will inform us that ‘choice’ has definite limits.”

See related coverage:

Non-Terminal People Increasingly Seeking Assisted Suicide in Switzerland

Washington Becomes 2nd US State with Legal Assisted Suicide


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