Today the Montana Supreme Court will be the first court in the nation to consider whether or not medical assistance in dying is a protected right under a state constitution. The case centers around Robert Baxter who was, by all accounts, a stereotypical Montanan. He was tough, independent, and determined to set his own course in life. But as lymphocytic leukemia ravaged his body he pleaded with his doctors for help in ending his suffering.
When his doctor refused Mr. Baxter’s pleas, he sued, arguing that such a refusal violated his rights under the Montana Constitution. The Montana Constitution, ratified in 1972, reflects the deep libertarian roots of the state and echoes the privacy-rights movement that defined this part of the West following the 1960s. The document is full of language concerning the limiting reach of government and keeps as its center the preference for individual autonomy and dignity.
This case, and Montana, differ from places like Washington and Oregon where physician-assisted suicide came about through voter referendums, rather than an argument based on state constitutions themselves. Neither the Washington State Supreme Court nor the Oregon Supreme Court have examined the right to die issue in a consitutional framework.
The debate also puts in focus the challenges states like Montana face in the current debate surrounding health care access and health care choice. A significant part of the Montana population lives hours away from even minimal access to health care, and Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Those who oppose a constitutionally protected right to die argue that before an issue like assisted suicide is tackled the state should focus on making sure everyone has equal access to quality care. The concern, they say is not that residents should not have a right to choose, but that everyone has access to all the same choices.
Others, such as members of the disability-rights community, fear that a constitutionally protected right to die may lead to physicians or family members pushing those with disabilities towards life-ending decisions based out of misdirected compassion or worse, convenience.
A lower-court sided with Mr. Baxter last December, the very day Mr. Baxter died. The State of Montana has since appealed the ruling, but both sides expect the state supreme court to side with Mr. Baxter. That expectation stems from a tradition of interpreting the State Constitution with individual privacy rights in mind. For example, the court struck Montana’s anti-sodomy laws as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. The court has issued similar rulings considering a woman’s right to chose abortion. Because this case involves on the State Constitution, the Montana Supreme Court’s order will be final and binding. There will be no appeal possible to the United States Supreme Court.
But, the United States Supreme Court has followed Montana’s lead in the past. For example, in 2003 it reversed one of its decisions that had found no constitutionally protected right to privacy for same-sex couples under the United States Constitution, putting Montana once again in the legal frontier of privacy issues. If past decisions and regional sentiments are any help in predicting judicial outcomes, Montana could very well become the first state in the country to recognize a constitutionally protected right to die.
photo courtesy of Sebastian Bergmann via Flickr