Montana Court Rules in Favor of Aid in Dying

Article excerpt

Physicians in Montana may legally assist terminally ill patients in hastening death, according to a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court.

The decision in the case of Baxter v. State of Montana concerned Robert Baxter, a retired truck driver from Billings, Mont., who was terminally ill with lymphocytic leukemia with diffuse lymphadenopathy. As a result of the disease and its treatment, Mr. Baxter suffered from symptoms including "infections, chronic fatigue and weakness, anemia, night sweats, nausea, massively swollen glands, significant ongoing digestive problems, and generalized pain and discomfort," according to the decision.

The court said further: "The symptoms were expected to increase in frequency and intensity as the chemotherapy lost its effectiveness. There was no cure for Mr. Baxter's disease and no prospect of recovery. Mr. Baxter wanted the option of ingesting a lethal dose of medication prescribed by his physician and self-administered at the time of Mr. Baxter's own choosing."

Mr. Baxter, along with four physicians and Compassion & Choices, a pro-aid-in-dying group, filed suit in Montana's district court for the first judicial district, challenging the constitutionality of Montana homicide statutes being applied to physicians who provide aid in dying to mentally competent, terminally ill patients. Mr. Baxter's attorneys contended that the right to die with dignity was constitutional under Montana law.

The district court ruled in favor of Mr. Baxter, but the state appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. On Dec. 31, 2009, that court also ruled in favor of Mr. Baxter, by a vote of 5-2, although it declined to comment on whether aid in dying complied with the Montana constitution. Mr. Baxter had died in December 2008.

"This court is guided by the judicial principle that we should decline to rule on the constitutionality of a legislative act if we are able to decide the case without reaching constitutional questions," wrote Justice W. William Leaphart. "We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy. ... Furthermore, the Montana Rights of the Terminally Ill Act indicates legislative respect for a patient's autonomous right to decide if and how he will receive medical treatment at the end of his life. ... We therefore hold that under [Montana law], a terminally ill patient's consent to physician aid in dying constitutes a statutory defense to a charge of homicide against the aiding physician when no other consent exceptions apply."

Justice James Rice, one of the two dissenting judges, argued that under current Montana law, a physician can be prosecuted for helping a patient commit suicide--if the patient survives, the crime falls under the category of aiding suicide; if the patient dies, the crime is regarded as a homicide. …