Thursday, December 31, 2009

Montana Supreme Court upholds physician-assisted suicide as legal

From Bloomberg News:

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

The case was filed by Robert Baxter (pictured), 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 joined Baxter in the case challenging whether they could be prosecuted under Montana law for helping mentally competent, terminally ill patients to die.

A lower court ruled last year that Montana’s constitutional privacy and human dignity rights allow a terminally ill patient to “die with dignity.” The court ruled the patient may use a doctor’s prescription, and that the physician is protected from prosecution under Montana’s homicide laws. Montana appealed the lower court 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 court reversed the lower court’s award of attorney fees to Baxter.

Kathryn Tucker, a legal director at Compassion and Choices, a group that advocates end of life free choice which joined the case, said today’s decision is the first from a U.S. state high court to protect the choice to end one’s life.

The opinion “makes clear that in Montana, patients are able to make this choice and physicians can provide this care without risking sanction,” Tucker said in a statement. Baxter died before today’s decision, according to the statement.

Judy Beck, a spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

The case is Baxter v. Montana, 09-0051, Supreme Court of Montana (Helena).