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Montana Becomes Third State to Legalize Doctor-Assisted Suicide

By Joel Rosenblatt

Jan. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Montana, and doctors who help terminally ill patients die are shielded from prosecution, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Montana is the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow physicians to help such patients end their lives, and yesterday’s decision is the first from a U.S. state high court to protect the choice, said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, a group that advocates the practice.

A lower court in Montana ruled in 2008 that the state’s constitutional privacy and human dignity rights allow a terminally ill patient to “die with dignity.” The court ruled patients may use a doctor’s prescription, and that the physician is protected from prosecution under Montana’s homicide laws. Montana appealed that 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 case was filed by Robert Baxter, 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 also joined Baxter in the case challenging whether they could be prosecuted under Montana law for helping mentally competent, terminally ill patients to die.

Baxter died before yesterday’s decision, according to a statement from Denver-based Compassion and Choices.

‘Additional Options’

With yesterday’s ruling, “terminally ill Montanans can work with their doctor and have additional options at the end of life,” Hopcraft said in an interview.

A representative for Nightingale Alliance, a Wisconsin- based group that opposes assisted suicide, didn’t immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment.

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).

To contact the reporter on this story: Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco at jrosenblatt@bloomberg.net

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=aU0qhkVObeqU


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