Montana legalizes assisted suicide

Posted: Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bloomberg, Mont. - Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Montana, and doctors who help terminally ill patients die are shielded from prosecution, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Montana is the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow physicians to help such patients end their lives, and today's decision is the first from a U.S. state high court to protect the choice, said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, a group that advocates the practice.

A lower court in Montana ruled last year that the state's constitutional privacy and human dignity rights allow a terminally ill patient to "die with dignity." The court ruled patients may use a doctor's prescription, and that the physician is protected from prosecution under Montana's homicide laws. Montana appealed that ruling to the state's high court.

"We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy," the high court said in its opinion.

Montana law "explicitly shields physicians from liability for acting in accordance with a patient's end-of life wishes, even if the physician must actively pull the plug on a patient's ventilator or withhold treatment that will keep him alive," according to the ruling.

The case was filed by Robert Baxter, a retired truck driver from Billings who was terminally ill with leukemia, according to court filings. Baxter sought a lethal dose of medication prescribed by his doctors, who also joined Baxter in the case challenging whether they could be prosecuted under Montana law for helping mentally competent, terminally ill patients to die.

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