In reference to Bradley Williams’ recent guest column concerning what he refers to as euthanasia and as physician-assisted suicide, it appears that he believes that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in Baxter v. State somehow turned Montana into the nation’s destination spot for those. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, medical aid in dying is not euthanasia (i.e., purposeful killing) or suicide any more than is a terminally ill patient’s perfectly legal use of a “do not resuscitate” directive, or his or her perfectly legal direction to the physician to discontinue treatment, or his or her perfectly legal refusal to accept medical treatment. Medical aid in dying involves a physician prescribing life-ending medications that the patient can choose to self-ingest — or not. Moreover, the physician will prescribe these medications only after the patient undergoes thorough medical and emotional evaluations. It is a difficult and careful process, as it should be; and it is only available to patients who have a bona fide illness that will end in death within a relatively short period of time, and, typically, death in a painful, agonizing and protracted manner.
Second, Mr. Williams misrepresents the Baxter decision itself. The District Court judge had held, after a thorough evidentiary hearing and briefing, that Montanans’ constitutional rights of individual privacy and dignity protected the right of incurably ill patients to end their physical and mental suffering with medical assistance. The judge’s decision was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
Appellate courts typically decide cases on the narrowest grounds, avoiding constitutional issues if possible. And that is, precisely, what the Montana Supreme Court did in Baxter. The Court concluded that, reading various Montana statutes together, persons with incurable illnesses who were going to die within a short period of time, accompanied by great suffering, had a legal avenue to seek and receive medical assistance in dying a dignified death. Montana’s statutes supported this avenue, and the Court simply enforced those laws.
Third, we know that over the intervening years since Baxter, Montanans suffering those types of illnesses have successfully sought and obtained medical assistance in dying from various compassionate physicians in this state. Baxter has worked successfully, as intended — and without the parade of horribles predicted by those who would interfere with the patient’s most personal and well-considered decision. Indeed, Mr. Williams’ article fails to disclose that it was patients themselves who demanded this relief and sued to obtain it. Their stories, extant in the Court record, are compelling and heart-rending.
Finally, every legislative session produces some sort of bill or special interest demand to rewrite Montana’s statutes so as to make criminals out of physicians who provide medical assistance to their patients who choose to end their own lives in a dignified manner, with life-ending oral medications.
Baxter was decided on solid legal grounds and should not be legislatively overturned on the basis of misunderstandings and misinformation apparent in Mr. Williams’ guest column.
Rather, we should all be asking why some are so willing to condemn their fellow citizens to a long, agonizing, certain death from a life-ending illness, when the patient only wishes to end her or his own life and suffering in a painless and dignified manner, surrounded by those who support their loved one’s decision.
James C. Nelson of Helena is a retired Montana Supreme Court Justice.