Another state allows physician-assisted suicide

by Jim Longworth

No one knows exactly how many people take their own lives each year, but some estimates put the number at over 1 million worldwide. We also have no idea how many people in the last stages of a terminal illness would like to avail themselves of physicianassisted suicide if it were legal, but my guess is that nearly all of them would.

As of last month, there are now three states where such merciful euthanasia can be performed. Montana is the latest to join the fold, which includes Oregon and Washington. The former made physician-assisted suicide legal back in 1994, while the latter came on board in November 2008.

Montana’s supreme court ruled last month that nothing in state law prevents patients from seeking professional assistance to die. That opens the door for doctors to prescribe drugs to “mentally competent” patients without fear of prosecution. The ruling came as a result of a suit brought by Robert Baxter who had been diagnosed with leukemia and fought for the right to seek help in dying. But the court’s decision came too late to help Baxter. He died on the very day that Judge Dorothy McCarter issued her decision. Despite this moral and legal victory, it should be noted that opponents of physician-assisted suicide, as well as church-affiliated healthcare facilities, were placated by the ruling, which included an opt-out provision for hospitals that did not wish to participate.

I’d like to think that the Montana case will open the floodgates for reform, but that is unlikely, at least right now. In all, 33 states still consider physician-assisted suicide a criminal act, including Georgia, where police recently arrested four members of the Final Exit Network. Authorities claimed that the FEN had facilitated over 200 suicides by providing exit guides to terminally-ill patients. The guide described how someone can suffocate himself by using a plastic hood and a helium tank. Here in North Carolina (as well as in Utah and Wyoming) there is no specific state statute which criminalizes assisted suicide, but no doctor is rushing to test the boundaries. In fact, no other states seem to be in a hurry to follow Montana’s lead.

It is ironic that many who oppose decriminalizing physician-assisted suicide are themselves anti-big government, and should be supportive of reform. As Baxter attorney Kathryn Tucker stated, “The Montana Supreme Court has determined that this is a choice that state law entrusts to Montana patients, not to the government.”

Sadly I can’t help but think about the countless thousands of terminally ill people who have been limited in their choice of exit strategies. Fortunately there are hospice programs available where patients can die with quiet dignity, and for that I am grateful. But America will never truly be civilized until every citizen has the right to actively participate in his own passing. In the meantime, kudos to the Big Sky State for seeing the big picture. Now it’s up to the rest of us to share their vision.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).