Montana Lawmakers Will Consider Bills on Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 8, 2010   |   8:16PM   |   Helena, MT

After the Montana Supreme Court made the state the third to allow the practice of assisted suicide, state lawmakers want their say and will consider legislation on both sides of the debate.

The high court did not determine if the Montana constitution guarantees a right to assisted suicide but said nothing in state law or the precedent of the court prevented patients from getting lethal drugs from their physician.

The decision essentially had Montana joining Oregon and Washington as the only three states in the nation to allow doctors to aid patients in killing themselves.

Rep. Dick Barrett, a Missoula Democrat, will introduce legislation this session to implement the decision, according to a Missoulian report.

“My sense is that terminally ill Montanans really do want to have this choice available to them, not that large numbers of people take advantage of it,” Barrett said.

Niki Zupanic of ACLU Montana told the newspaper his group will push for the adoption of the legislation.

Sen. Greg Hinkle, a Republican from Thompson Falls, will file a bill to ban assisted suicide, calling it “elder abuse.”

His measure will receive support from pro-life groups like the Montana Family Foundation, whose president, Jeff Laszloffy, told the newspaper, “I think one of the big ones we’re really going to be fighting is the legalization of assisted suicide in Montana.”

Wesley J. Smith, a prominent bioethics attornney, previously explained the thought process of the Montana Supreme Court in he decision.

“The Supreme Court of Montana vacated a trial judge’s ruling that the Constitution of Montana prohibited assisted suicide for the terminally ill–but construed the state’s living will law as permitting doctors to prescribe lethal overdoses if the patient self administers,” he said.

“The good news is that it isn’t a constitutional right but permitted by the Court’s construction of a statute,” he added. “The bad news is that the case seems to accept “aid in dying” as a legitimate medical procedure, and indeed one in which the physician is less involved in a patient’s death than when he or she withdraws life support.  But we are generally not talking about patients on life support.”

“Let us hope that the Montana Legislature clarifies the law as not applying to prescribing lethal doses for suicide,” he said.

The case was an appeal of a ruling District Judge Dorothy McCarter issued last December misusing the privacy clause of the state constitution to allow people to kill themselves with the help of a physician. Note: This article has been revised to reinforce our original story indicating that the high court did not legalize assisted suicide, but essentially allowed the practice of physicians writing a lethal prescription for patients to self-administer.