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United States: Montana Supreme Court Holds State Law Permits Physician Assistance of Suicides by Terminally Ill Patients

(Jan. 26, 2010) The Montana Supreme Court has held that Montana law allows a physician to aid the suicide of terminally ill patient. With this decision, Montana joins Oregon and Washington as states that allow the physician-assisted suicide of mentally competent, terminally ill patients.

The plaintiffs in this case included a terminally ill patient who wanted a doctor-prescribed lethal dose of medication that he could take at a time of his choosing. He was joined by several doctors and an advocacy organization in bringing an action in a Montana district court to challenge the constitutionality of applying state homicide statutes to a physician who assists a terminally ill patient in ending his or her life. The trial court held that the Montana Constitution's protections of individual dignity and privacy guarantee the right of a terminally ill patient to die with dignity. The state appealed.

The Montana Supreme Court vacated the trial court's decision because it relied on constitutional grounds, when a statutory analysis was sufficient to resolve the case. It found that state statutory law does not prohibit physicians from assisting terminally ill patients who wish to end their life. Focusing on the Montana homicide statute, the court noted that statute contains a consent defense, which includes an exception providing that consent is ineffective if it is “against public policy to permit the conduct or the resulting harm, even though consented to.” The court therefore analyzed whether physician-assisted suicide violates Montana's public policy. The court investigated case law from Montana and other states, as well as Montana statutory law, and concluded that public policy would not be violated by allowing physicians to assist mentally competent, terminally ill patients in making their own end-of-life decisions. (Baxter v. State, No. DA 09-0051 (Dec. 31, 2009), available at