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Mont. assist. suicide ruling ‘blurs’ life line

WASHINGTON (BP)–A Montana Supreme Court ruling that does not accord a constitutional right to assisted suicide but allows doctors to provide patients with lethal prescriptions endangers the terminally ill, disabled and elderly, a pro-life lawyer said.

Montana’s high court, in a Dec. 31 ruling, stated that none of its previous decisions nor any state law prohibits “physician aid in dying.” In a 4-3 opinion, the majority applied a 1985 Montana law on the withdrawal of treatment for terminally ill patients to physician-assisted suicide, thus giving protection to doctors who prescribe drugs that a person may use to take his life.

In physician-assisted suicide, a doctor prescribes a lethal dose of drugs but does not administer the dosage to the patient.

William Saunders, senior counsel for Americans United for Life, said the ruling “will have horrendous implications for the most vulnerable citizens in Montana.”

“To protect people’s lives, the law needs to draw a clear distinction between withdrawing life-sustaining measures and physician-assisted suicide,” Saunders said in a written statement. “[This] decision blurs that line, which is extremely dangerous.”

Wesley Smith, a pro-life bioethics specialist, called the high court’s approach “odd.”

“Very odd — particularly since … the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously [in 1997] that there is relevant and legal distinction between removing unwanted life support and assisting suicide,” Smith wrote on his weblog.

“The good news is that it isn’t a constitutional right but permitted by the Court’s construction of a statute. … And since the analogy is to withdrawing life support, it will be harder to expand the category of people to whom doctors can legally prescribe without running afoul of the homicide statutes. Best of all, because it is statutory, the law can be changed or clarified,” Smith wrote.

“The bad news is that the case seems to accept ‘aid in dying’ as a legitimate medical procedure, and indeed one in which the physician is less involved in a patient’s death than when he or she withdraws life support,” said Smith, who expressed hope the Montana legislature would make clear that the law does not apply to assisted suicide.

Advocates for assisted suicide applauded the court’s decision.

“This case was about the right of mentally competent, terminally ill patients to request a prescription for medication from their doctors which they can ingest to bring about a peaceful death,” Kathryn Tucker, legal director of Compassion & Choices, said in a written release. “The Montana Supreme Court has determined that this is a choice the public policy of Montana supports. Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice.”

For the time being at least, Montana joins Oregon and Washington as states with legally protected physician-assisted suicide. Voters in Oregon and Washington approved the practice in statewide initiatives.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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