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Montana Court Decides Terminally Ill Patients Have Right to Death with Dignity under Montana Constitution

Montana’s First Judicial Court today issued a landmark decision in a lawsuit brought by a terminally ill Montana man, four Montana physicians and Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit organization advocating for better care and choices at the end of life. 

Judge Dorothy McCarter held that mentally competent terminally ill Montanans have a right to a dignified death protected by the Montana Constitution’s guarantees of privacy and individual dignity. Accordingly, plaintiff Robert Baxter has the right to obtain medications he can self-administer to bring about a peaceful death, if he finds his suffering intolerable. The physician plaintiffs can write prescriptions for their mentally competent terminally ill patients who want to control the time and manner of their deaths without the fear of criminal prosecution. 

Compassion & Choices Legal Director Kathryn Tucker, lead counsel in the two federal cases asserting a right of this nature under the U.S. Constitution, teamed with Montana litigator, Mark Connell, in arguing for Bob Baxter and the physicians. “This ruling is consistent with a long line of cases recognizing that Montana’s Constitution protects the decision-making power of its citizens in the most intimate and personal areas of their lives,” said Tucker. “The court found that the decision of a dying patient whether to endure further suffering or, instead, to cut such suffering short, is an intensely personal, private decision which must be reserved to the individual.

On behalf of Bob Baxter, Steve Stoelb and the four doctors we represent, we are for the court’s recognition that terminally ill Montanans have the right to determine their own destinies with respect to these difficult end-of-life choices,” said Connell. “The court has found that it is the individual patients who should be entitled to make these critical decisions for themselves and their families, and not the government.  Our state constitution’s rights of privacy and individual dignity compel this result, and the court’s ruling is consistent with Montanans’ view of the limited role the state should play in such matters.

Barbara Coombs Lee, Compassion & Choices’ President noted, “Montana now becomes the 3rd state in which aid in dying is affirmatively legal. Oregon has had its Death with Dignity Act in effect for more than a decade; Washington voters approved a similar law in the November election. We are at a tipping point in expanding choice at the end of life to include aid in dying.”

Read full court decision here (PDF)

Download Press Release here (PDF)

Read Kathryn Tucker’s Montana Law Review article (PDF)

Watch the Montana CBS news story

Read the Bozeman Daily Chronicle article

Read the Baxter v. Montana complaint.

Read the motion for summary judgment and briefing in support

Read Robert Baxter’s affidavit

Read the physician’s affidavits:
Dr. Loehnen
Dr. Speckart

Watch a video of news clips from the case here.