Tuesday January 5, 2010

Montana Supreme Court Legalizes Doctor-Assisted Suicide

By Peter J. Smith

HELENA, Montana, January 5, 2010 ( – The Montana Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that state law does not prevent physicians from assisting patients in killing themselves, making it the third U.S. state after Oregon and Washington where doctor-assisted suicide is now legal.

The high court’s 4-3 ruling in Baxter v. Montana, however, did not give “right-to-die” advocates a constitutional right to assisted suicide, or “aid in dying” as it is euphemistically called.

Instead, the Supreme Court decided that Montana had no statutory prohibitions on assisted suicide and that doctors could be shielded from prosecution for prescribing lethal doses to patients wanting to die. The majority stated that terminally ill patients administering lethal doses to themselves bore the ultimate responsibility for their deaths, not the doctors who provided them the prescriptions.

The court cited a 1985 law addressing the withdrawal of treatment for terminally ill, which they contended provided a “public policy” basis for allowing physician assisted suicide.

Two dissenting judges said, however, that the majority had warped the intent of that law, which they said was not meant to support “physicians shifting from idle onlookers of natural death to active participants in their patients’ suicides.”

The decision was welcomed by the euthanasia advocacy group Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, which brought the case to Montana’s courts on behalf of Robert Baxter, a 76-year-old Billings truck driver, who was suffering from lymphocytic leukemia. Baxter died of complications related to the disease in 2008, shortly before the high court reached its decision.

Assisted-suicide opponents, however, warned that the state Supreme Court’s decision further endangers patient lives, rather than protecting their dignity.

“This holding ignores the practical realities of ensuring patient safety from over-eager heirs, new ‘best friends’ and others who might benefit from the patient’s death,” said Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

“For example, physicians who malpractice and who wants to hide their mistakes can now say: ‘It was what the patient wanted.’ The evidence against the physician dies with the patient. If the patient has no family or other advocate, who will know?”

Montana state solicitor, Anthony Johnstone, said in a statement following the decision that the high court still “recognized that physician-assisted suicide is a policy question for the people of Montana and their Legislature” and therefore remedying assisted-suicide through legislative action remains an open possibility.