Judge Dorothy McCarter ruled that a Billings, Montana, man who has terminal cancer may legally undergo doctor-assisted suicide. The ruling may well be appealed as Montana state says the State, rather than the court, should decide on such issues – whether a terminally ill patient has the right to take his/her own life.

The ruling makes Montana the third US state to allow terminally ill patients the legal choice of aid-in-dying, after Oregon and Washington.

During the ruling the judge said “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.”

The ruling added that a terminally-ill patient who finds his/her suffering to be ‘unbearable’ has the right to receive self-administered medication to hasten death. The ruling also stated that a doctor may prescribe such medication for the patient without fear of being taken to court for it.

Dorothy McCarter wrote that not only does a patient have the right to die with dignity, but also his/her doctor needs protection from liability under the state’s homicide laws.

Mike McGrath, Attorney General, said his team of lawyers will discuss this ruling and will possibly appeal. He said doctor-assisted suicide is a constitutional issue and should be ruled on by the Supreme Court.

Robert Baxter, 75, the terminally ill patient said “I am glad to know that the court respects my choice to die with dignity if my situation becomes intolerable.” Baxter, a truck driver, suffers from lymphocytic leukemia.

Compassion & Choices, a patient’s right group, helped argue the case. Legal Director, Kathryn Tucker, said that the court found that it is the patients who should be given the right to make these critical decisions for themselves and their families – not the state. The State Attorney General’s office said it was the responsibility of the state Legislature.

As well as Baxter, the case included another four plaintiffs – doctors who need a ruling on whether they would face criminal charges if they assisted a patient with aid-in-dying. None of the doctors provide health care for Baxter.

According to a press release by Compassion & Choices “The right to privacy, personal autonomy and dignity are deeply rooted in the political and cultural heritage of Montana. Establishing the right of terminally ill patients to seek aid in dying is well within the Montana tradition of living with dignity and personal responsibility. The case asserts that terminally ill, mentally competent Montanans have a protected right to choose aid in dying under the Montana State Constitution.”

The Montana Supreme Court reinforces living with dignity and personal responsibility saying, “We have chosen not to ‘march lock-step’ with the United States Supreme Court…we have held that Montana’s unique constitutional language affords citizens (of Montana) a greater right to privacy.” District Court Judge Jeffrey M. Sherlock wrote, “Montanans generally mind their own business and do not wish to restrict other people in their freedoms unless the exercise of those freedoms interferes with other members of society.” (Compassion & Choices).

Kathryn Tucker’s 2007 Montana Law Review article provides more detail on the state’s unusually strong protections for individual liberty, privacy, dignity and autonomy. “Such a case (as Baxter) asserts that mentally competent, terminally ill Montanans have a right protected under the Montana State Constitution’s guarantees of privacy and dignity to chose to control their own deaths by obtaining medications from their physician for this purpose.” (Compassion & Choices)

Read Kathryn Tucker’s Montana Law Review article (PDF)

Click here to view the Baxter vs. Montana complaint (PDF)

Written by Christian Nordqvist