Montana High Court Affirms Patients' Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
December 31, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU of Montana applauds decision to permit terminally ill to die with dignity


HELENA, MT — The Montana Supreme Court today ruled that physicians may aid mentally competent, terminally ill patients who request assistance to die with dignity. The ruling on the case, Baxter v. Montana, however, failed to declare this right to die as protected under the Montana Constitution, but rather as an act permitted under state statutes.

“We’re pleased that the Court ruled in favor of physicians who prescribe medication to terminally ill patients who want to end their suffering and die with dignity, but are disappointed that the justices did not uphold the right to die as constitutionally protected,” said ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief supporting death with dignity as a protected right under the Montana Constitution’s rights to privacy and dignity. The Court’s 5-2 ruling does not address those points, but rather states that under state statute patients may consent to their own deaths and physicians who help them are protected under state law. Though physicians can still be charged with a crime, consent is an allowed defense.

In a special concurring opinion, however, Justice James Nelson wrote that aid in dying is constitutionally protected.

Robert Baxter sought relief from his suffering from leukemia. He died last December on the same day the lower court ruled in his favor.

The Montana Supreme Court’s ruling creates uncertainty that death with dignity will always be protected under state law. It places the issue in the lap of state legislators, who in the 2011 legislative session could choose to regulate the process or could even outlaw it.

The ACLU of Montana is currently organizing an April 10 conference on the issue in Helena, inviting legal, medical, religious and patient representatives from all sides of the debate to present their views and aid in the community discussion about this important issue.

“The Court’s ruling reinforces how important community understanding and discussion of death with dignity will be in the coming years,” said ACLU of Montana Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic. “The ACLU is committed to facilitating that process and ensuring that individuals’ right to determine their own medical decisions is protected.”

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