The Montana Supreme Court said on Thursday that nothing in state law prevents patients from seeking physician-assisted suicide, making Montana the third US state that will allow the procedure.
Patients and doctors had 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.
The Montana Supreme Court opinion will now give doctors in the state the freedom to prescribe the necessary drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients without fear of being prosecuted, advocates said.
Steve Johnson, a 72-year-old Helena cancer patient, welcomed 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 lifelong rancher and 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 didn’t go as far as District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena did in December 2008, when she extended constitutional protections to the procedure.
The Supreme Court decided not to determine whether the Montana Constitution guarantees the right. Instead, it said nothing in state law or the court’s precedent indicated it was against public policy — and pointed to laws giving patients rights to make crucial decisions as a justification for legalizing the assistance.
Oregon and Washington state allow assisted suicides for terminally ill patients, with Oregon adopting the US’ first “death with dignity” law in 1997. Tucker said Montana doctors should now feel comfortable adopting procedures that doctors in the other two states use.
The Supreme Court ruled that assisted suicide is an acceptable defense to any homicide charges against the doctor.
“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.
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