Man Behind Assisted Suicide Lawsuit in Montana Passes Away After Ruling

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 10, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Man Behind Assisted Suicide Lawsuit in Montana Passes Away After Ruling

by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 10
, 2008

Helena, MT ( — The man at the heart of a legal battle in Montana to make it the third state to allow assisted suicide has passed away. Robert Baxter, a Billings resident, filed a lawsuit with the help of a prominent euthanasia group arguing that the state’s privacy clause in its constitution allows him a right to assisted suicide.

As reported, Judge Dorothy McCarter declared that Baxter and other mentally competent, terminally ill Montana residents can self-administer drugs given to them in prescriptions from willing doctors.

The Associated Press issued a report saying Baxter hailed the decision, but issued a retraction late Tuesday indicated Baxter died on Friday, the same day McCarter handed down her ruling. His family told AP that Baxter was unaware of the decision.

AP indicated the public relations firm Hopcraft Communications prepared a release for Compassion & Choices, the pro-euthansia outfit behind the lawsuit that AP called a "patients’ rights group."

The press release reportedly contained Baxter’s statement hailing the decision and AP reported the comment as the firm said it didn’t realize Baxter had passed away when it disseminated the press statement for Compassion.

Montana officials are expected to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court and there is no word yet on what effect, if any, Baxter’s death will have on the case.

The state’s high court could decide that the case no longer has standing because Baxter has died or it could construe the case as a class action lawsuit on behalf of citizens like him who may want a doctor to help them kill themselves.

Pro-life advocates have little faith in the Montana Supreme Court because it already misused the privacy provision of the state constitution to allow for an unlimited right to abortion and they believe that the 1999 ruling in the Armstrong case will open the door to assisted suicide.

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

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.

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.

Other states, including Hawaii, California, Vermont, Michigan and Maine have defeated assisted suicide proposals.

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