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Helena Judge Hears Arguments in Right-to-Die Suit

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A district judge heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit by a terminally ill Billings man, four Missoula physicians and a nonprofit patients’ rights group seeking to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in Montana.

The plaintiffs argue that mentally competent, terminally ill Montanans should be allowed to take prescribed medication that would bring about a peaceful death.

“Whether to endure further suffering or, instead, to cut such suffering short, is an intensely personal, private decision which an individual makes based upon his or her most deeply held values and beliefs,” said Kathryn Tucker, legal director for Compassion & Choices, one of the plaintiffs in the case. The group has headquarters in Denver and Portland, Ore.

“If Montana’s right of privacy protects anything, surely it protects this decision,” Tucker said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also include 75-year-old Robert Baxter, a retired truck driver who suffers from a terminal form of cancer, and four physicians who treat terminally ill patients.

The Montana Attorney General’s office maintains that intentionally taking a life is illegal, and that the issue of assisted suicide is the Legislature’s responsibility, not the courts.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Anders argued that Montana has no formal evaluation process, safeguards or regulations in place to provide guidance or oversight for doctor-assisted suicide. She said ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would invite a flood of litigation.

District Judge Dorothy McCarter at one point asked the attorneys general why the state felt compelled to preserve the life of someone who is suffering and wants to die.

“I mean, we put our pets to sleep when they’re suffering like that, and that’s considered humane,” McCarter said. “And yet, if we want to do it to our loved ones, it’s considered murder.”

Tucker told McCarter that the phrase “assisted suicide,” which was used several times during the hearing, is pejorative and value-laden and has been rejected by numerous medical organizations.

“For people like Bob Baxter, who had surgery and radiation and chemotherapy, he doesn’t at all believe that choosing a peaceful death is a form of suicide,” she said.

She said Baxter was too sick to attend the hearing, but in a statement he said he is dying of a “painful, limiting” disease and wants the “choice to die with dignity.”

“I want my doctor to be able to prescribe medication for a peaceful death,” Baxter said. “I want to be able to gather my loved ones and die with dignity in my own home.”

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, but did nothing to prevent states from legalizing the process. Since then, only Oregon has done so.

Under Montana law, helping someone try to commit suicide is a crime. If an assisted suicide attempt is successful, a person can be charged with murder. If the attempt fails, a person can be charged with aiding or soliciting suicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

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