Catholic Doctors Aided Lawsuit That Could Legalize Assisted Suicide in Montana

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

Catholic Doctors Aided Lawsuit That Could Legalize Assisted Suicide in Montana

by Matt Bowman
December 10, 2008 Note: Matt is an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a leading pro-life legal alliance. ADF has been involved in numerous legal cases on pro-life issues ranging from defending pro-life legislation to uphold free speech rights to protecting vulnerable patients from euthanasia.

Judicial activism lives. Last Friday a state trial judge in Montana imposed assisted suicide on the entire state against the will of the people.

Montana’s criminal law, enacted by elected representatives, penalizes assisted suicide as a crime, and its “Rights of the Terminally Ill Act” expressly states that the people are not authorizing assisted suicide. Yet the state court trumped these laws by finding a right to assisted suicide in the constitution of the State of Montana.

Perhaps even more startling, the plaintiffs who demanded this result were not merely two patients with terminal illnesses, but they also included four doctors affiliated with St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana.

St. Patrick’s is a Catholic hospital, and is part of an outspokenly pro-life hospital network in the northwest called Providence Health & Services. Last month when a referendum passed in the State of Washington legalizing assisted suicide, Providence and some of its hospital leaders quickly issued a statement declaring that their doctors and hospitals would not be administering assisted suicide.

Four doctors are plaintiffs the Montana lawsuit, and they successfully demanded that the court override the will of the people and legalize assisted suicide by judicial fiat. They include Dr. George Risi, Jr., who is the Committee Chair for Infection Control at St. Patrick’s.

Dr. C. Paul Loehnen and Dr. Lar Autio are both in the medical staff directory of St. Patrick’s. And Dr. Stephen Speckart says in the lawsuit that he is an oncologist at the Montana Cancer Center, which is closely affiliated with St. Patrick’s. (The MCC web site does not currently list Dr. Speckart on its physicians page, though it does display his resume.)

Importantly, as the basis for bringing this lawsuit, all these doctors pointed to their regular care for terminal patients, and their desire to provide “aid in dying” including assisted suicide. They asserted, on behalf of their patients, the constitutional “right” to assisted suicide. The court specifically upheld their legal standing to sustain this case. The court placed great reliance on the physician’s role, and it distinctly declared the physician’s “right” to assist in a suicide.

It is unclear how many of these doctors’ terminal patients are cared for through St. Patrick’s, but it would be surprising to find out that there is no connection at all. The doctors therefore seem to be using their history of care through St. Patrick’s as a tool to help them impose legal assisted suicide on Montana. This also raises the issue of whether their desire to assist suicides would include situations in which patients are receiving treatment from them through St. Patrick’s.

I cannot find any information suggesting that St. Patrick Hospital knows that these doctors have abused their duty-to-heal in this fashion. I imagine that the doctors did not tell St. Patrick’s about it, especially since the hospital network is so outspokenly pro-life. St. Patrick Hospital and Providence Health & Services should be given some time to consider this information internally and to respond appropriately. I am confident that they will continue their strongly pro-life record in the State of Montana. (I am not calling for any campaign to contact the hospitals–I just think it is important to highlight these doctors’ apparent connection with Catholic healthcare.)

Assisted suicide victimizes people with illnesses. As Mailee Smith at AUL points out, not even the moderate limits on assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington exist under the Montana court’s exercise of policy-making. The court simply imposed a limitless regime in which the many abuses of assisted suicide can run rampant.

Catholic hospitals have a basic right not to participate in abortion and assisted suicide, and not to affiliate themselves with employees who publicly advocate and practice such atrocities. Religious organizations give truly compassionate care to the sick and dying. Their consistent witness is the most important asset we have in creating a culture of life in the medical field.

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