Montana is the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow physicians to help such patients end their lives, and the court ruling is the first from a U.S. state high court to protect the choice, said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, a group that advocates the practice.
A lower court in Montana ruled in 2008 that the state's constitutional privacy and human dignity rights allow a terminally ill patient to "die with dignity." The court ruled patients may use a doctor's prescription, and that the physician is protected from prosecution under Montana's homicide laws. Montana appealed that ruling to the state's high court.
"We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy," the high court said in its opinion.
Montana law "explicitly shields physicians from liability for acting in accordance with a patient's end-of life wishes, even if the physician must actively pull the plug on a patient's ventilator or withhold treatment that will keep him alive," according to the ruling.
The case revolved around Robert Baxter, a retired truck driver from Billings who was terminally ill with leukemia. Alix Spiegel, reporting for the NPR, a popular alternative broadcasting channel, said, "Bob Baxter was in his 60s when the cancer came, lymphocytic leukemia. He had been a Marine, a truck driver, an outdoorsman, fiercely independent. But after only a decade of sighting cancer, Baxter was unable to seat up or get out of bed without assistance. And so he approached his doctors. Baxter wanted a prescription that might end his pain by ending his life."
Bu the Montana physicians were reluctant, as they thought helping him could attract murder charge. Hence Baxter went to court, and with him doctors who favour assisted suicide.
Kathryn Tucker, the lawyer who argued Baxter's case, and Director of Legal Affairs, Compassion & Choices, contends the judgment reflects the growing trend among Americans generally to accept the need for such choices.
Though the Supreme Court, in effect, legitimized the euthanasia, it also declined to engage the broader constitutional privacy question and instead pointed to a Montana statute which allows terminally ill patients the right to refuse life-preserving medicines like ventilators which is at least relatively good news for opponents of so-called assisted suicide.
But Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation says he sees the ruling as a cup half full.
He told NPR radio station, "What we were worried about was that the Supreme Court was going to uphold the lower court decision and say physician-assisted suicide is constitutional. And that would have been much more difficult to challenge. We would have to ramp up a constitutional amendment effort. Now all we have to do is go back into a legislature that for the most part is friendly to our side of the issue and just get them to put language in the Montana code that outlaws physician-assisted suicide. It's much easier to do."