Euthanasia is a controversial topic. Terminally ill patients who seek a doctor’s assistance to commit suicide can encounter strong opposition. Doctors may be unwilling, family and friends may oppose it, and the government can potentially step in and prosecute anyone who assists.
Euthanasia is an emotionally volatile issue and the laws surrounding it tend to be controversial too. Montana knows this all too well – it’s one of a handful of states that permit doctor-assisted suicide.
Montana Law Permits Doctor-Assisted Suicide
The Montana Supreme Court cleared the path to doctor-assisted suicide in 2009. That year, the court decided a case called Baxter v. Montana. Baxter held that Montana law did not prohibit doctor-assisted suicide and permitted doctors charged with homicide to raise patient consent as a legal defense. While this ruling didn’t directly legalize euthanasia, providing a defense for doctors makes it difficult for the state to prosecute them. The court ruling effectively legalized euthanasia because the doctor is often the only person remaining after a patient's suicide.
There’s an important legal qualification here. The Montana Supreme Court decided Baxter on the basis of statutory law– not the state constitution. This means that the Montana Legislature can overturn or modify Baxter by passing a bill into law. Since the ruling, the legislature has considered bills that would ban euthanasia and other bills that would permit euthanasia. So far, none have become law.
Montana’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act
Montana provides other options to terminally-ill patients. The Montana Rights of the Terminally Ill Act permits terminally-ill patients to refuse life-sustaining medical care. This allows patients can make their own end of life decisions with the their doctors and family members.
Patients can also plan ahead. Patients can direct doctors in advance to withdraw or withhold life-sustaining medical care should they become terminally ill later on. Montana law permits adults to make this decision through a declaration process. Adults must make a declaration to this effect, in writing and in the presence of witnesses, which is then placed in a patient’s medical file and recorded in a state registry. Patients can also make similar declarations that permit someone else to direct doctors to withhold life-sustaining medical care.
Finally, Montana law allows relatives to consent to the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical care from a loved one in the absence of a patient declaration. There’s a strict order of priority as to who makes this decision. A spouse takes priority, followed by an adult child or adult children, then a patient’s parents, an adult sibling or siblings, and concluding with the nearest relative by blood or adoption. When a guardian exists, he or she can consent as well.
The following chart summarizes current Montana euthanasia laws.
Is Doctor-Assisted Suicide Legal?
|Yes, as provided by current law.|
|What's the Legal Authority?||
The Montana Supreme Court opened the door for legal euthanasia in Baxter v. Montana, 2009 MT 449.
|Can Terminally Ill Patients Withold Life-Sustaining Treatment?||Yes. A declaration can be filed in advance. See code section 50-9-103.|
|Can Terminally Ill Patients Permit Someone Else to Withold Treatment?||Yes. See code section 50-9-103.|
|Can Relatives Consent to Withdrawal of Life-Sustaining Treatment in the Absence of a Declaration?||Yes. See code section 50-9-106.|
Montana Euthanasia Laws: Related Resources
Montana’s euthanasia debate is ongoing. If you or a loved one wants more information about Montana euthanasia law, contact a local attorney. An attorney can provide advice tailored to a specific situation. You can also visit FindLaw’s Health Care Law section for more information.
Contact a qualified attorney.