By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court of the state of Montana ruled on Dec. 31 that physicians who help terminally ill patients commit suicide cannot be prosecuted, thus making it the third state in the U.S. to allow the practice.
“We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy,” said the state’s Supreme Court in the 4-3 decision. “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.”
Euthanasia advocacy groups such as Compassion & Choices (formerly The Hemlock Society) which filed the original suit on behalf of a now deceased man from Billings and four physicians, are praising the decision.
“This case was about the right of mentally competent, terminally ill patients to request a prescription for medication from their doctors which they can ingest to bring about a peaceful death,” said Compassion & Choices Legal Director Kathryn Tucker, co-counsel to the plaintiffs/respondents. “Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice.”
However, the court’s decision did not go as far as these groups wanted, which was to uphold an earlier lower court ruling which granted constitutional protections to the procedure. Instead, the Supreme Court partially upheld and partly reversed the lower court ruling by agreeing that physician assisted suicide is not illegal under state law, but giving no opinion on the greater constitutional question addressed by the lower court.
Opponents of the ruling, such as Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said that a “ bright spot” in the decision is that it does not give physicians the ‘right’ to prescribe a lethal dose, “but only suggests that circumstances may exist to give them a defense to prosecution for homicide.”
Others warn of problems ahead.
“Some might say technically what this new law is saying is that there are now conditions under which a doctor will not be prosecuted, so technically it [assisted suicide] is still illegal,” explains attorney Rita Marker, director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia. “But de facto assisted suicide is wide open in Montana for anyone who has been diagnosed or misdiagnosed as having a relatively short period of time to live.”
She explains that the way the law stands now, anyone who is diagnosed by a doctor or nurse practitioner as being terminally ill can receive a prescription for a lethal overdose. In Montana, a terminal illness is defined as a condition that without treatment will cause death “within a relatively short time.” However, this “relatively short time” period is not defined.
Essentially, even people with conditions such as diabetes would qualify under this law, Ms. Marker explained. “Because without treatment, diabetes would certainly cause them to die in relatively short period of time compared to how long they might have lived without that condition.”
Opponents of the decision say they will now turn to Montana’s legislature where they hope laws will be passed to protect citizens from the effects of this ruling.
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