On December 8, 2008 District Court Judge Dorothy McCarter’s issued the decision that it is legal for a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a competent, terminally ill Montanan who requests it. Two days later, the state attorney general’s office asked the judge to freeze her decision until the Montana Supreme Court could rule on the case.
Judge McCarter’s response on January 8, 2009 was an unequivocal, “No!” She reasoned it could take months or years before the case is heard by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the constitutional rights of dying Montanans would be violated.
Montanans owe a great deal of gratitude to this courageous judge. It would have been easy for her to retreat at this critical juncture. Instead, as I see it, she reaffirmed that our right to make choices at the very nexus of life and death is of critical importance to an individual’s dignity. In essence she said that dying Montanans are worthwhile, fully functioning humans who deserve every consideration and whose constitutional rights are worth protecting even in their last moments.
There is a propensity to think that humans who are near death are too weak or too fragile to make decisions for themselves. This is augmented by a subtle feeling among the healthy that the rights of the dying are not as important as their own; “it really doesn’t matter much, after all, they will soon be gone.” Judge McCarter understands that the dying are vital human beings who are least able among us to wait for or fight for their rights.
By denying to put a hold on her decision she affirmed that the most vulnerable Montanans are protected under the state constitution; that the rights of those of us whose deaths are imminent will not be ignored and that Montanans who find themselves in this situation before the appeal is heard deserve to have their rights protected as much as anyone.
What this means to all of us is that our rights to dignity and privacy are of great consequence no matter what phase of life we are in; that our rights must be protected every moment of our lives. Of course this is as it should be, but it is remarkable to think about none the less. It is also reassuring.