Dignity to Die; Montana Becomes Third State for Physician-Assisted Suicide

2010-01-02 09:14

A historical ruling will make Montana the third state alongside Washington and Oregon to allow terminally ill people the right to die with dignity. Doctors will now be able to prescribe the necessary medications to the terminally ill without fear of prosecution.

The ruling follows an attempt to overturn the 2008 decision by a lower court. Montana Supreme Court said there was nothing in its precedent showing that doctor-assisted suicide was against public policy. Patients as well as physicians have been waiting for the state's high court to step in after a lower court decided a year ago that constitutional rights to privacy and dignity protect the right to die.

In the United States, Oregon was the first state to have legal necessities for physician assisted suicide (since 1997) and Washington followed in 2008. On an international level, there are only three countries where assisted suicide is legal. Switzerland allowed this practice since 1941, the Netherlands followed in 1984 and Belgium allowed the right to die with dignity in 2002

Steve Johnson, who is a cancer patient, was pleased with the decision, saying he has talked with his doctor about ending his life. ''I am very concerned about the intense pain and loss of dignity,'' the veterinarian said at a press conference at the Capitol. ''I've accepted my death. I approach the end of my life with a clear mind.''

The Supreme Court is not going to determine whether the Montana Constitution guarantees the right to die with dignity rather it said nothing in state law or the court's precedent indicated it was against public policy. They pointed to laws giving patients rights to make crucial decisions as a justification for legalizing the assistance.

''The Montana Supreme Court has determined that this is a choice that state law entrusts to Montana patients, not to the government,'' said Compassion & Choices Legal Director Kathryn Tucker, a lawyer on the case. ''Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice.''
''In physician aid in dying, the patient, not the physician, commits the final death-causing act by self-administering a lethal dose of medicine,'' Justice William Leaphart wrote for the court. Justice James Nelson, a liberal member of the court, said he would have extended the constitutional right to the procedure as the lower court had.

''Until the public policy is changed by the democratic process, it should be recognized and enforced by the courts,'' wrote Justice Jim Rice for the minority. ''In my view, the court's conclusion is without support, without clear reason, and without moral force.''

This decision clearly stirs up emotional debate not just for those in Montana but country wide as we wait to see who will become the fourth state to permit people to die with dignity and allow physician-assisted suicide.

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