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