Terminally ill patients in Montana have ‘right’ to physician-assisted suicide

Terminally ill patients in Montana have ‘right’ to physician-assisted suicide


Last Friday Montana became the third state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide when a judge ruled that physicians could prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients without the threat of criminal prosecution.


According to the Associated Press, Judge Dorothy McCarter declared that mentally “competent, terminally ill patients” may self-administer life ending medication and that physicians who prescribe the medications need not fear criminal prosecution.


The decision will likely be appealed by the state so Montana’s Legislature can decide whether or not terminally ill patients can take their own life.


The case of Baxter et al. v. Montana was filed in November 2007 by Robert Baxter, a 75 year-old retired truck driver from Billings, Montana who suffers from lymphocytic leukemia and has a history of prostate cancer, hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease.  Along with Baxter, the other plaintiffs listed are four physicians and a non-profit patients’ rights group called Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society.


In the late Friday ruling, Judge McCarter stated that 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.”


She went on to say that those patients had the right to hasten death through self-administered medications.  Additionally, physicians can prescribe this medication without the threat of prosecution.


In a statement, the AP reports, Baxter said he was “glad to know that the court respects my choice to die with dignity if my situation becomes intolerable.”


He also explained in Compassion & Choices Magazine that a patient’s right to die has “always been a very important thing to me.”


“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,” reports World Net Daily.


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


The state attorney general’s office contended that taking a life intentionally is illegal and that any decisions regarding the issues are the responsibility of the state Legislature. 


The AP reports that Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Anders argued that Montana currently lacks an evaluation process and regulations to provide guidance for physician-assisted suicide.  She also pointed out that the terms “competent” and “terminally ill” have not been defined.


The judge’s decision stated that doctors would both determine the competency of their patients and whether or not the patient is terminally ill.


An attorney who specializes in bioethics issues, Wesley J. Smith, told Life News that the decision was a broad ruling that “logically couldn’t be limited to physician assisted suicide or the terminally ill.”


Smith claimed that the judge “went further than somebody's right to commit suicide, which is an individual action. She declared that the person who wants to die has the right to help."


"The example here is of a physician writing a prescription. But her ruling went even farther than that--it shielded assisting doctors from homicide laws. It seems to me that language has to open the door to active euthanasia.”


This decision could lead the way for non-doctors assisting in suicides similar to the way the state allows nurses to perform abortions.


The Diocese of Helena was not able to immediately provide CNA with a statement regarding the decision.


Montana now joins its northwest neighbors Oregon and Washington as the only three states to allow doctor-assisted suicides.

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