Assisted Suicide Could be Legalized in Third State Under Montana Court Ruling

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 7, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Assisted Suicide Could be Legalized in Third State Under Montana Court Ruling

by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 7
, 2008

Helena, MT ( — Montana could become the third state to legalize assisted suicide following a state district court judge’s decision asserting such a right exists. Montana is the latest battleground in the assisted suicide battle because of a state privacy provision that courts have misconstrued to allow a right to assisted suicide.

Backers of the grisly practice filed a lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of a terminally ill patient — Robert Baxter of Billings — who wants the right to get a doctor to help them kill himself.

The patient and four doctors supporting it went to the Montana First Judicial Court in Helena on October 10 and sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to prevent them from being prosecuted should they move ahead with the suicides.

In a ruling issued on Friday, Judge Dorothy McCarter declared that Baxter and mentally competent, terminally ill Montana residents can self-administer drugs given to them in prescriptions from willing doctors.

Judge McCarter ruled that neither patients nor physicians would face legal punishment from engaging in an assisted suicide.

The pro-euthanasia group Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, pushed the case in the courts and Kathryn Tucker, the legal director for the group, told KTVQ-TV that she was delighted by the decision.

"A mentally competent, terminally ill Montanan should have the right to choose a peaceful death, when confronted by death," she said.

But Montana Assistant Attorney General Anthony Johnston responded that "The laws governing the medical profession say the medical profession is to heal, not to kill."

The decision will be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which has already misused the privacy provision of the state constitution to allow for an unlimited right to abortion and legal experts and pro-life observers believed that 1999 ruling in the Armstrong case will open the door to assisted suicide.

Wesley J. Smith, a leading attorney who specializes in bioethics issues, is monitoring the case and he called the decision "a radically broad and hubristic ruling" that "logically couldn’t be limited to physician assisted suicide or the terminally ill."

Smith said Judge McCarter "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," he worried.

The decision could pave the way to non-doctors assisting in suicides in the same way Montana allows nurses to do abortions.

Smith also said that Tucker’s group has been persistent in pushing euthanasia and assisted suicide.

She "tried and failed to obtain a U.S Supreme Court ruling creating a constitutional right to assisted suicide," he explained.

"That failed 9-0. Then, she tried in Florida, having a state constitutional right declared in the courts. That failed. Then, she tried in Alaska. That failed. Now, it is Montana," he explained.

Oregon and Washington are the only other states in the nation to have legalized assisted suicide and the practice is also legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.

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