Judge: Montanans Have Right to Assisted Suicide

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A state district judge has ruled Montana residents have the right to doctor-assisted suicide.

The ruling issued late Friday by Judge Dorothy McCarter makes Montana the third state in which doctor-assisted suicide is legal.

“The Montana constitutional rights of individual privacy and human dignity, taken together, encompass the right of a competent terminally (ill) patient to die with dignity,” McCarter wrote.

McCarter ruled in a lawsuit filed by a terminally ill Billings man, four physicians who treat terminally ill patients and a nonprofit patients’ rights group, Compassion & Choices.

McCarter’s ruling holds that mentally competent terminally ill Montanans have a right to obtain medications that can be self-administered to bring about a peaceful death if they find their suffering to be unbearable.

“The patient’s right to die with dignity includes protection of the patient’s physician from liability under the state’s homicide statutes,” the judge wrote.

Attorney General Mike McGrath said Saturday that attorneys in his office will meet to discuss the ruling next week and expects the state will appeal the ruling.

“It’s a major constitutional issue and the Supreme Court should rule on it,” said McGrath, who will be sworn in as chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court in January.

Plaintiff Robert Baxter, 75, is a retired truck driver diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“I am glad to know that the court respects my choice to die with dignity if my situation becomes intolerable,” he said in a statement. “It comforts me to know that my doctor can prescribe medications that I can take to bring about a peaceful death, that I can gather my loved ones and die with dignity in my own home. This is my personal choice, based on my values and beliefs.”

Compassion & Choices Legal Director Kathryn Tucker argued the case along with Missoula attorney Mark Connell.

“The court has found that it is the individual patients who should be entitled to make these critical decisions for themselves and their families, and not the government,” Connell said in a statement.

McCarter heard arguments in the lawsuit against the state of Montana and the attorney general’s office on Oct. 10.

The attorney general’s office argued that intentionally taking a life is illegal, and that the issue of assisted suicide falls under the responsibility of the Legislature, not the court.

During that hearing, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Anders argued the state has no formal evaluation process, safeguards or regulations in place to provide guidance or oversight for doctor-assisted suicide.

The state also argued that it was premature to declare constitutional rights for a competent, terminally ill patient because there is no definition for “competent” or “terminally ill.”

“Compentency is easily determined by the patient’s doctor,” McCarter wrote. “Treating physicians are frequently called upon to determine the competency of their patients for the purposes of guardianship and other legal proceedings. Whether a patient is terminally ill can also be determined by the physician as an integral component of the physician-patient relationship.”

At one point during the hearing, McCarter asked 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 and that’s considered humane,” she said. “And yet, if we want to do it to our loved ones, it’s considered murder.”

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.

Oregon passed its Death with Dignity Act in 1997 and Washington voters approved a similar law in November.