Daughter Hails Montana's Right-to-Die Ruling

PHOTO Families of Dying Say Assisted Suicide Is Right

Robert Baxter, an avid outdoorsman, couldn't hold on long enough to see the legal victory that he hoped would allow him and other terminally ill patients the right to die.

The 76-year-old Montana truck driver -- an "every guy Joe" whose body had been ravaged for 12 years by cancer -- stopped chemotherapy in November 2008 and began to rapidly decline and lose weight.

"He was so skinny he couldn't sit because his skin hurt," said his 47-year-old daughter, Roberta King of Missoula. "It pinched his skin together because there was no meat. It was that bad."

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Baxter's death in December of that year set in motion an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court to uphold the right for the dying to seek help ending their lives -- a battle that was won last week on New Year's Eve.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 for the legal right to assisted suicide, making Montana the third state that gives physicians the freedom to prescribe drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients without fear of prosecution. No appeal is now possible.

"I think my father would be happy that somebody else might be able to benefit from this," King told ABCNews.com after the court ruling. "He was pretty miserable."

The Baxter family had been waiting for the state high court's ruling after a lower court said constitutional rights to privacy and dignity protect the right to die.

Advocates expected the high court to uphold that ruling because of its historic support of individualism.

Those who drafted the state's constitution, which was adopted in 1972, at the height of a privacy movement that spread West after the turbulent 1960s, wrote that "the dignity of the human being is inviolable."

The state's supreme court did not take a stand on whether the right is a constitutional one, leaving that to lawmakers.

King expressed disappointment that the court did not go far enough.

"They said the [right to die] didn't have anything to do with them," she said.

One of the other plaintiffs was Compassion & Choices, a national group that advocates to protect and to expand the rights of the terminally ill. Other human rights organizations and 31 Montana state legislators also supported the suit.

Right-to-Die Approved in Montana

"The Montana Supreme Court has determined that this is a choice that state law entrusts to Montana patients, not to the government," Compassion & Choices legal director Kathryn Tucker told The Associated Press. "Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice."

The supreme court, pointing to the legislature's own policy-making, ruled that assisted suicide is an acceptable defense to any homicide charges against the doctor.

"In physician aid in dying, the patient, not the physician, commits the final death-causing act by self-administering a lethal dose of medicine," Justice William Leaphart wrote for the court.

"Until the public policy is changed by the democratic process, it should be recognized and enforced by the courts," wrote Justice Jim Rice for the minority.

"In my view, the court's conclusion is without support, without clear reason, and without moral force," he wrote.

A Death With Dignity law was enacted in Oregon in 1997 and in Washington state in 2008, but in both cases by referendum, not constitutional challenge.

The case, Baxter vs. Montana, was challenged by the state, which argued the constitution conferred no right to aid in ending one's life.

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