Montana becomes third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide

In essence, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that suicide – even when a physician plays a role – is not a crime. Now, the state legislature is likely to argue the issue.

By , Staff writer

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    Backers of an Oregon law permitting physician-assisted suicide demonstrate outside the US Supreme Court as the court hears oral arguments in the federal government's challenge to the law in 2005. The high court upheld the law, which has been in effect since 1998.
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In a move that is both ethically profound and (so far, at least) politically rare, Montana has become the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

A divided state supreme court ruled Thursday that neither state law nor public policy prevented doctors from prescribing lethal drugs to terminally-ill patients who want to end their lives.

In essence, the court ruled, suicide is not a crime. The majority justices wrote:

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“We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy. The ‘against public policy’ exception to consent has been interpreted by this court as applicable to violent breaches of the public peace. Physician aid in dying does not satisfy that definition. We also find nothing in the plain language of Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy. In physician aid in dying, the patient – not the physician – commits the final death-causing act by self-administering a lethal dose of medicine.”

Northwest pattern

The ruling – which is likely to be challenged in the legislature and perhaps in a voter referendum – follows a pattern in the Pacific Northwest.

In November 2008, voters in Washington State approved a ballot initiative allowing terminally ill, legally competent adults to obtain lethal prescriptions without exposing themselves or their doctors to criminal prosecution. The Washington measure was modeled on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act enacted in 1997 following voter approval and upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2006.

The Oregon law strictly prohibits “lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia.” But it allows mentally competent adults who declare their intentions in writing, and have been diagnosed as terminally ill, to take a doctor-prescribed lethal drug themselves, orally, after a waiting period.

Since the law went into effect in 1998, about 40 people a year have taken their own life this way. Last year, 60 individuals did so (out of 88 who received the prescriptions).

No violations of Oregon law

Over the years, there have been no reported violations under the law – no evidence that individuals have been pressured by doctors or family members. And Oregon has become noted for the quality of end-of-life care, especially the use of hospices.

Missoula attorney Mark Connell, who represented plaintiff physicians and patients, described the decision as “a victory for individual rights over government control.”

“The Montana Supreme Court has now recognized that, where intensely personal and private choices regarding end-of-life care are involved, Montana law entrusts those decisions to the individuals whose lives are at stake, not the government,” he said in a statement released by Compassion & Choices, the main group lobbying in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

Pro-life groups took a different view.

Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation told LifeNews.com, “Definitely not what we wanted, but not as bad as it could have been.”

“What the court did, in essence, was to place the issue back into the hands of the legislature, where it should be,” Mr. Laszloffy said. “They said there’s nothing currently in statute that prohibits the practice. It’s now up to us to go into the next legislative session fully armed and ready to pass statutory language that says, once and for all, that physician assisted suicide is illegal in Montana.”

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