Advocates: At least 1 assisted suicide in Montana

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Doctors in Montana have helped at least one patient commit suicide since a state court ruled late last year it wasn't illegal, advocates said Friday, but authorities have no way of knowing how many others there may be, who is doing it or even how it is being done.

The state Supreme Court ruled Dec. 31 that nothing in state law prevents a doctor from prescribing the lethal drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients, making Montana the third state to allow physician-assisted suicide.

But the court didn't determine whether the state Constitution guarantees the right to physician-assisted suicide, raising fears among doctors that they could still be prosecuted.

So if Montana physicians are helping patients kill themselves, they haven't been publicizing it.

Since the ruling Dec. 31, the first report of a physician-assisted death came Friday, when advocacy group Compassion & Choices said doctors had prescribed the lethal drugs to at least one patient.

Barbara Combs Lee, the group's president, said they are not releasing the number of patients to protect their privacy and to prevent investigations into the cases.

"There are physicians in Montana who are implementing the law," Combs Lee said Friday.

While Oregon and Washington have laws outlining guidelines and reporting procedures, Montana authorities said they have no legal authority to regulate the practice or track the number of cases.

Opponents have promised to go to the Legislature when it meets again in 2011 seeking legislation clarifying assisted suicide is illegal in Montana.

The Montana attorney general's office — which argued to the high court that only the Legislature should legalize physician-assisted suicide — said it has not offered any advice to county attorneys, who would decide whether to prosecute doctors.

Greg Jackson, a criminal defense attorney asked by assisted-suicide opponents to draft a legal analysis of the issue, said prosecutors will ultimately decide whether to prosecute.

"Frankly, it is a case-by-case determination and it is very fact specific to the case that would be before the court," he said. "Ultimately it falls on the desk of a prosecutor to look at the facts of the case and determine if they think an individual should be prosecuted."

Steve Johnson, 72, of Helena, who has brain cancer, said his main criteria in picking a primary care doctor was finding one who would write a prescription for the lethal drugs when death is imminent. Johnson said he does not want an ugly, painful death.

"I am very glad I have a choice," said cancer patient Steve Johnson of Helena. "It is crucial we find doctors that are willing to stand up."

Combs Lee said patients who get help from the doctors are given a prescription that includes a barbiturate that many pharmacies would have to order, and the drugs are then self-administered.

"Terminally ill patients throughout the state are gaining peace of mind knowing they have an option," she said.