Physician-Assisted Suicide Case Heard by Montana
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By Liz Townsend
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The Montana Supreme Court heard arguments
September 2 in a case involving
physician-assisted suicide. Expected to issue a
decision later this year, the Court will
consider whether to uphold a December lower
court ruling that the state constitution
includes the right to assisted suicide, the
Associated Press (AP) reported. Since the lower
ruling was not stayed, Montanans right now could
receive lethal prescriptions from doctors.
Montana law bans physicians or anyone else from
helping someone to commit suicide.
However, District Judge Dorothy McCarter ruled
December 5 that the Montana constitution's
protections of "individual privacy and human
dignity" required terminally ill people to be
allowed to kill themselves with a doctor's
assistance, according to the AP.
However, the AP reported that anecdotal evidence
shows that physicians have not been willing to
participate in patients' deaths, and the Montana
Medical Association adopted a policy stating it
"does not condone the deliberate act of
precipitating the death of patient."
The state attorney general's office appealed the
district court ruling to the state Supreme
Court. Its opposition to legalized
physician-assisted suicide was joined by other
groups who filed amicus briefs. In their brief,
Not Dead Yet and other disability-rights groups
argued that rather than granting them "dignity,"
assisted suicide leaves vulnerable people open
to abuses and involuntary death.
"People with disabilities in Montana are
seriously threatened by physician-assisted
suicide," the groups wrote. "Amici ask the Court
to believe them when they state that
disability-based discrimination in this culture
is deep-seated, pervasive and overwhelming.
People with disabilities request this Court to
recognize that cloaked in the false rhetoric of
'death with dignity,' physician assisted suicide
threatens the civil rights of a profoundly
oppressed and marginalized people."
Twenty-eight state legislators also filed a
brief in opposition, insisting that the court
should not legalize physician-assisted suicide
without regulations, oversight, or review by the
legislature. "The District Court decision
endangers our citizens and our most vulnerable
citizens at that without so much as even
contemplating the potential abuses and social
harms that may result," the legislators wrote,
according to the AP. "That is truly an analysis
that should be left for the Legislature."
The issue is further complicated by realities in
the state of Montana, which has one of the
nation's highest suicide rates, rural areas with
limited access to health care, and communities
of Native Americans who also face inflated
numbers of suicides, the New York Times
"Montana's longstanding tradition of protecting
its citizens against intentional killing should
not be suspended for any group of citizens," the
Montana Catholic Conference wrote in an amicus
brief. "It will facilitate the destruction of
people who are sick, instead of reasonably and
compassionately addressing their health
problems. ... It will undermine attempts to
treat the true underlying causes of suicide
requests, and result in deaths that are not
truly voluntary or consensual."