On Monday, the Montana state senate voted 27–23 to defeat a bill that would have definitively outlawed doctor-assisted suicide in the state. The legislation was first introduced in February as a response to a Montana supreme court decision from 2009 that determined that Montana law does not forbid assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. The court stopped short of making assisted suicide a constitutional right in the state however, giving the legislature the opportunity to clarify the law and prohibit doctor-assisted suicide.
The defeat of this bill is a serious setback in the fight to protect the rights and dignity of terminally ill and disabled patients, a struggle that will become more important with the graying of the American population. Although efforts to legalize assisted suicide have so far met with limited success in most states — a Massachusetts ballot initiative was defeated in last November’s election, a bill in Connecticut recently stalled in committee, and a bill being considered by the Vermont legislature was largely rewritten by the state senate in February to remove language that would have permitted doctor-assisted suicide. But other states, including Maine, New Jersey, and Kansas, still have dangerous assisted-suicide laws winding their way through their legislatures this year.
If the Montana bill had been enacted — if, after the state supreme court ruled that assisted suicide was legally permissible, lawmakers had acted to prohibit the practice — it would have been a valuable example of legislators pushing back against the supposedly inevitable expansion of the shallow, autonomy-based ethic that endorses killing, rather than caring for the elderly and vulnerable. That the bill failed should serve as a reminder that defending the dignity of terminally ill patients means more than resisting demands for a “right to die.” Actively advancing the culture of life in America means taking a clear stand for the dignity of human life by crafting policies that will put a stop to the abuse of patients and the elderly while offering real alternatives for terminally ill patients by improving access to palliative care — sending a clear message that death with dignity does not mean death by prescription.
— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.