Assisted-Suicide Ruling Shifts Fight to Legislature

A New Year’s Eve court ruling gave physician-assisted suicide a boost in the state of Montana, as a New York Times article reported here. But the ruling stopped short of finding a constitutional right to the practice.

The court ruled 4-3 that state law protects doctors in Montana from prosecution for helping terminally ill patients die. Though Compassion & Choices, which participated in the case as a plaintiff, had hoped the ruling had gone further, its legal affairs director, Kathryn Tucker, said the decision expanded the choices available to the dying in Montana and extended protection to their doctors.

The case originated when retired truck driver Robert Baxter died last year, at 76, of complications related to lymphocytic leukemia. He had argued that he had the right to obtain help from a physician in committing suicide.

The majority in the decision pointed to a 1985 state law that addressed the withdrawal of treatment for terminally ill patients. That legislation created “public policy,” the majority said, that in effect shielded a physician from prosecution for helping hasten the death of a consenting, rational, terminal patient.

The dissenting justices said the majority had misread the intent and meaning of the 1985 law and given it a breadth it was never intended to have.

“The statute provides no support for physicians shifting from idle onlookers of natural death to active participants in their patients’ suicides,” they wrote.

Reacting to the ruling was Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation.

“What the court did, in essence, was to place the issue back into the hands of the Legislature, where it should be,” Laszloffy told here. “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.”