Montana allows assisted suicide

The state of Montana has become the third US jurisdiction to allow doctors to participate in assisted suicide. In a 4-3 decision, its Supreme Court held that state law protects doctors from prosecution for helping terminally ill patients die.

However, the decision does not end the debate in Montana, as the court carefully tiptoed around the question of whether euthanasia and assisted suicide are protected by the state constitution. Instead its decision leaves this in the hands of the state legislature. No doubt there will be a debate in the legislature and possibly even a referendum.

The conservative western state of Montana seems an odd place for radical social change. But like Alaska, California, Florida and Hawaii, its constitution contains an explicit right to privacy, which is favourable ground for assisted-suicide arguments. However, the supreme courts of Alaska, California and Florida have found that privacy does not apply to assisted suicide. In 2007 a lawsuit was filed by supporters (led by the lobby group Compassion and Choices) to challenge the status quo.

The opinions of the judges highlighted the fact that "human dignity" can be interpreted in very different ways. In a consurring opinion, James C. Nelson found that:

Montana’s Dignity Clause does not permit a person or entity to force an agonizing, dehumanizing, demeaning, and often protracted death upon a mentally competent, incurably ill individual for the sake of political ideology, religious belief, or a paternalistic sense of ethics.

However, in a dissenting opinion, Jim Rice found that:

The prohibition against homicide—intentionally causing the death of another—protects and preserves human life, is the ultimate recognition of human dignity, and is a foundation for modern society

~ Christian Science Monitor, Jan 2; New York Times, Dec 31


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