Who Decides How You Die? Inside Montana's Assisted Suicide Fight

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You may have the right to control your own life, but what about your own death? This is a question facing several states across the U.S., including, most recently, Vermont and Montana.

While physician aid-in-dying, or assisted suicide, has been legal in Oregon for almost two decades and legal in Washington for almost five years, other states have proved resistant to the idea. Reason TV was on the scene as this legal and moral battle played out in a somewhat surprising place: Montana, where conservative Republicans dominate local politics.

"We have a certain tradition here, going back to frontier days, of saying there are certain areas the government ought to stay out of," says Mark Connell, a Montana attorney who argued in the state's landmark Supreme Court case, Baxter v. Montana.

Connell's client, U.S. Marine veteran and retired trucker Robert Baxter, suffered from a terminal illness called lymphocytic leukemia and wanted the ability to take medication that would hasten his death and end his suffering. He died before Montana's Supreme Court could even issue the Baxter decision, which recognized a constitutional right to assisted suicide for all Montanans.

But that was just the beginning of this fight. Watch the video above to hear from legislators attempting to overturn Baxter and criminalize physician aid-in-dying once and for all, doctors who've risked their practices to write lethal prescriptions for suffering patients, and an elderly California man who's decided to take matters into his own hands whether the state likes it or not.

Approximately 9:30 minutes.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Paul Detrick, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Weissmueller.

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  1. If the answer to the headline isn't STEVE SMITH and/or Warty, I am dissapoint.

    1. Who decides when you die? Chuck Norris!!!!

    2. Ultimately Warty decides how we all die. The disfavored are the ones who die from non-Warty-related causes.

    3. I thought it was the Obamacare Death Panels Quality of Life Boards that were going to make that decision for you.

      "I'm getting better."

      "No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment."

      "I don't want to go on the cart."

      "Oh, don't be such a baby."

      "I think I'll go for a walk."

      "You're not fooling anyone, you know."

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  2. The most tragic part is suicide is not about the person dying, it is about their loved ones. If you are terminally ill and suicide is legal all your friends and family can be there to say goodbye. Illegal suicide must be done without an expert to assist and without loved because of fear of assisting in an illegal activity.

    1. I think that's the biggest reason to make it legal. Most people can figure out how to kill themselves if they really want to. But making it impossible to fully discuss it with your loved ones or to have them there when you do it is pretty cruel.

  3. I initially read that as Monsanto.

    1. Well, that's the end game, isn't it?

    2. Finally another use for Roundup.

      1. That would be an unpleasant way to go.

  4. We all have the strength to endure others pain. I think a conscious individual making that choice should definitely be legal. Unconscious ones would be a bit more difficult, it would be ideal if they wrote out instructions beforehand but that's often not the case. I think with some of these cases I've been reading where the person was trapped in a conscious hell for years makes me lean toward pulling the plug as the default position, perhaps after a short waiting period.

    1. Doctors tend to not give up on patients. If they begin talking about hospice or withdrawal of care, it is a pretty bad situation.

    2. As with so much else, it gets down to the "reasonable man (person)" standard. What would the average Joe or Jane want done if they ended up in that condition without a living will or advance directives.

    3. I recall the Terri Schiavo case a few years back. Everybody seemed fixated on whether or not she was brain dead. I thought that the salient point was that matters had shifted from "We might allow you to be taken off of life support if you have a carefully written living will" to "We'll take you off of life support on the unsubstantiated word of someone with a financial interest in your death" without my noticing. It seems to me that that is very small step from "We'll jerk you off of life support based on our own Expert opinion, no matter what your preferences or those of your loved ones might be."

      1. The blunt answer is that whoever is paying the bills should get to call the shots. If he didn't want to pay for the care anymore, then someone else can pick up the tab.

        1. And in the Schaivo case, there was somebody ready to do just that?.her parents. But her husband didn't want that, and for some reason that was allowed to override. That case scares the hell out of me.

    1. I guess in the movies when police tell you to drop your weapon and put your hands up that is pure Hollywood fantasy.

      1. Hey. Prove they didn't tell him to drop it. You can't. What? You've got video? Hand it over! That's evidence! I said hand it over! Now motherfucker or I'll blow your fucking brains out! You think I'm joking?
        *blam* *blam* *blam* *blam*
        I swear that cell phone looked like a weapon. I feared for my life.

        1. He was obviously guilty of something or they wouldn't have shot him. What happened?

          1. After the shooting Haskin said, "The police officers were sobbing uncontrollably and very distraught."

            Clearly they are punishing themselves more than a criminal court ever could. Case dismissed.

            1. Clearly they are punishing themselves more than a criminal court ever could. Case dismissed.

              Why can't peasants use that defense?

              1. Because we're peasants. Duh.

                1. The only thing we need to know is our place on the very bottom. Isn't it wonderful?

    2. An old white man wearing a polo shirt got shot? The shit is about to hit the fan.

    3. "CBS 11 has learned that the two officers involved were not hurt..."

      It's nice to know they didn't sprain their trigger fingers. I think we can all agree that's what's most important.

  5. One of the most difficult changes to accept in life is the fact the government has lodged itself between the patient and the doctor. Man, I never thought I'd live to see that one. What a disgrace.

    1. I'm okay with the government lodging itself between, say, Kermit Gosnell and his patients. There is a point where I think government needs to step in and make sure that rights are not being violated. I mean, if a doctor is trying to assist the suicide of someone with advanced dementia in the absence of a living will, the government needs to step in and say "Stop. He can't consent to that".

      1. The dementia thing is tricky. I think they should just let them wander off to their fate, myself, because they are a complete waste of space and are nothing but a cause of misery to themselves and those that once knew them. There is no more awful, depressing place than an Alzheimer's ward.

        But then I'm one of those nasty people who thinks one's humanity comes from one's mind, not one's DNA. And I also watched two grandparents live for way too long with severe dementia and what that did to my father.

        1. Had an aunt and uncle with dementia, both dead now. I have to agree with pretty much zeb's whole post. The wandering part is the one thing I'm struggling with,It's hard though.

          1. It is hard. With dementia patients you can say, well they have no shot at coming back from that. But what about someone in a coma? How low does the chance of recovery have to be before we let someone "wander off" in any sense of the phrase? We certainly don't let children "wander off".

            1. Children have potential. Advanced Alzheimer's cases don't. I'm not super serious about just letting them wander off, but that's my gut reaction. It's not my place to end that life, but I see no point in intervening to prolong it.

              1. I think given an almost 100% chance that w/o intervention they will die on their own(wrt dementia patients) Is their really a difference in having someone do it, other than it would probably be far less painful and scary?

                1. That's a point. I have lingering moral concerns, but I would certainly not have been angry or terribly upset if someone had upped my grandmother's morphine dose until she stopped breathing after she lost the ability to speak or really be meaningfully conscious.

  6. What do you say to someone like this Creighton/Cretin Kerns Congress guy who would like to criminalize assisted suicide because "Our lives belong to god?"

    I feel like my head is going to explode.

    And "There are always ways you can go outside the government system" (Hey, we have shotguns rope knives and razors in Montana so, what's the problem here?).

    1. I've been living in Montana for quite a few years, now, and have seen a lot of people go. No one I've known yet has had much difficulty getting what they need to make an inevitable end quicker and less painful. It just hasn't been legal to do openly up to this point.

      1. So, those that would like to end their lives in Montana can find a painless non-traumatic way to die with their loved ones around? I find that hard to believe.

        1. I'm not saying that if you play every card you're dealt very poorly that you aren't going to be left on your own to deal with the system by yourself.

          On the other hand, there are a great number of people, in this most sparsely populated of places, who will certainly risk doing what is right over what is legal.

          If yourself, or anyone else, lacks the common sense to make that happen then there's not much that can be done for you.

          Certainly, the law needs to be changed so everyone, even those otherwise incapable of at least a minimal degree of self-control and foresight, is protected.

          The only point I was making was that no small number of people around here were already doing what must be done, despite the law, and without negative repercussions.

          1. It feels like you are talking in a circle!

            "you are going to be left on your own"
            "who will risk doing what is right"
            "not much can be done"
            "the law needs to be changed"
            "were already doing what must be done"

    2. "I feel like my head is going to explode."

      combine what you said above with the images of those two ALS patients crying because they were denied the right to end their suffering and you can get some pretty mindnumbing rage going.

      1. Yes, for those of us who have had to deal with this issue, that's where the rage comes from.

    3. What do you say to someone like this Creighton/Cretin Kerns Congress guy who would like to criminalize assisted suicide because "Our lives belong to god?"

      "Fuck off, slaver." (In loving memory of JsubD, you live on in our hearts, dude.)

      1. turn their favorite stupid phrase around on them.

        "The most selfish thing you can do is to force someone, in enough agony that the survival instinct is overridden, to continue living, so that you can have a little peace of mind."

        that came out a little messy, I'm sure someone else could get the point across more eloquently.

        1. "If God let's them succeed in taking their own life, then he must have intended for it to happen. Do you doubt God's omnipotence?"

          1. I like that one too.

          2. That doesn't quite work. There's still the question of free will. Isn't that what makes sin possible?

            1. "So it's okay for a Congressman to circumvent their free will in order to "save" them even though God has decided not to do so?"

              I can do this all day. (I know you're playing devil's advocate here.)

              1. I take a more Humeian approach to questions of free will, so that doesn't bother me. I'm just making other people's theological arguments for fun.

  7. If one of these busybody assholes tried to prevent me from ending my life on my own terms, I'd blow my brains out in their living room.

    1. Seems like a good start would be to blow their brains out first, if they didn't back off.

      1. Yeah, it's tempting, but it might turn public opinion against the cause.

      2. Probably not the final image of you your family would want. That is why I say suicide is less about the patient and more about the family. So they can have one last peaceful moment with the dying.

        1. Yeah. Most people are physically capable of killing themselves with commonly available tools. It just tends to create a fucking mess that no family should have to see/deal with. Assisted suicide allows a relatively clean and peaceful end that is about as family-friendly as a death can ever be. Denying people this option is straight up evil.

  8. "How would you like to die, Tyrion son of Tywin?" "In my own bed, at the age of 80 with a bellyful of wine and a girl's mouth around my cock."

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    1. Kill yourself.

  10. recognized a constitutional right to assisted suicide for all Montanans

    This is an example of the ways in which the phrase "constitutional right" gets misused, and its a pet peeve of mine. The Constitution enshrines certain rights in law but it isn't the source of those rights. That's an important distinction because when people look to the Constitution as the source of rights, they tend to see things that aren't there, downplay the things that are, and/or view an omission of rights as a sign that they don't exist or aren't worth protecting, depending on their agenda.

  11. If you think local Montana politics is dominated by conservative Republicans, you aren't knowledgeable about Montana.

    Kirsten Tynan
    Philipbsurg, MT

    1. That's nice. Can you give us some information on what local MT politics does look like?

  12. Suicide is never happy or brave. It is different than a martyrdom (by martyrdom, I don't necessarily mean religion-related). It is the act of someone who is severely depressed, lonely or feels like a burden. Assisted suicide means that society has taken the easy way out and not been a true friend to whoever they are allowing to kill themselves. It's a wretched cop-out so we don't actually have to minister to these people.

    "I feel like such a burden."
    "You really are."

    1. "Suicide is never happy"

      of course not, no one said it is. Closest we've come is to say it could end/reduce suffering. That doesn't mean it's not sad.

      " It is the act of someone who is severely depressed, lonely or feels like a burden"

      or very sick as is the case in this and another article by reason where the two ALS patients were denied assistance.

      " not been a true friend"

      in some cases i absolutely agree. there is way too much cruelty and callousness in our society, but i dont think that changes the legitimacy of assisted suicide.

      1. "Suicide is never happy"

        And I like eggs! Are you kidding me, you are actually going to comment on that? It's moronic.

      2. Suicide is always an act of hopelessness that points to some other solvable issue. Even a terminal patient can find some sort of happiness.

        For one albeit anecdotal example, look at Christopher Reeves. After he was paralyzed he wanted an assisted suicide. His wife, rather than affirming said choice, convinced him not to do it and thus he lived for another nine years instead of dying in hopelessness.

        1. Sorry Vincent, but if you persist with your omniscients:

          "Suicide is always an act of hopelessness"

          "instead of dying in hopelessness"

          And you continue to assume you know why others act?I got nothing more to say to you.

    2. VM

      Who the hell are you to decide who is brave? Who is a martyred? Or what causes depression? And who made you the spokesman for society? And go "minister" yourself!

      1. To me, if someone dies for a cause or they die saving someone else's life, that is a martyrdom. The primary goal is not their death. If they die just to get away from life, or to stop being a perceived burden, that's a suicide.

        1. Sorry Vincent, I have no idea what you are talking about.

          Why does your opinion about martyrdom matter?

          Whose "primary goal" are you talking about?

          And why is a person's reason for committing suicide relevant?

          1. The primary goal of the martyr. If I take a bullet for you, I desire to save you, not kill myself.

            1. And I like eggs!

  13. What if a young adult in their 20s wanted to commit suicide? Should we "affirm" them?

    1. We won't have to. Within moments of assisted suicide becoming legal, the government will quickly decided when it should be legal, and when it should be obligatory.

      1. I very much agree. The right to suicide will eventually turn into the obligation towards suicide. We're already seeing rationing boards, i.e death panels, in Obamacare. Whether its the government or your acquaintances, once suicide is on the table, people will come out of the woodwork to push it on you. The only real way to convince someone to kill them self is to discourage them.

        1. "turn into the obligation towards suicide. "

          Then fight against that, using the slippery slope argument to fight against a good law is stupid. Take abortion for an analogy. If we legalize it soon the gov't will force women to abort, or if you on the other side, if we illegalize the gov't might force women to get pregnant. The slippery slope goes both ways.

          1. Zack

            Should we be allowed to eat our children?

            1. doesn't sound like a good idea, why?

              1. Because it is not about whether this or that is a "good idea," but who has the right to decide! (Some libertarians believe you should be able to eat your children). If you believe that someone owns their life then suicide is their decision to make and it's not subject to your (Or Vincent's) opinions about if it's a "good idea."

                1. I was just telling vincent that if its the compulsory suicide he is really worried about then that is what he should be against, not elective/assisted suicide. You and me are on the same side wrt this issue.

                  1. Well said! Sorry If I misunderstood.

                2. What libertarians believe you can eat your children? I've never heard that. They believe in the "do no harm" principle which means do no harm to others, so they can't justify child-eating.

                  1. Well Vincent, let me ask you a question: What would happen in today's world if we started regarding children as the property of their parents, with the parents having total responsibility and liability for its welfare, would that be a good idea? And on net, would that produce a better outcome for our children VS the state having a property interest? Personally I never had children, because I couldn't own them, and they just might be delicious.

                    1. Libertarians don't believe in such a hardline approach to parental authority. The principle of "do no harm" always comes first. Children are still legal persons. While some forms of parenting that would be left alone under a libertarian approach are arguably abuse, eating your children crosses the line by anyone's standards.

          2. You make an interesting point. While I don't believe the slippery slope argument is entirely worthless, it should not be overrated.

            Also, I don't think family, "friends," and acquaintances coming out of the woodwork to encourage suicide would be a slippery slope so much as an immediate consequence in many cases.

        2. BS. The Death with Dignity Act has been in effect for twenty years in Oregon, five years in Washington state. There is not ONE case of misuse. Not ONE.

          This law was put into effect to ease pain and suffering of TERMINAL patients with six months or less to live. There are stringent safeguards in place, and it takes weeks to obtain the RX, and be deemed mentally competent and of sound mind BEFORE you receive the RX.

          You are obviously a fearmonger who really needs to do some homework on this subject.

          1. You can't really prove that no one has been pressured to die. I suppose I can't really prove that anyone has been pressured to die, but it seems very likely that it has happened to some extent.

            Plus, if we really follow the hardline libertarian solution, we would have to open suicide to any legal adult that wants it.

            Restricting it to one set of people presumes that its okay to kill those people but not others and does to some degree implicitly encourage those people to die.

            Same thing goes for calling it death with dignity. It presumes that holding on to the end while your body falls apart is undignified for those who wish to go out that way. Death by choice would be a more neutral term.

            Lastly, I'm fine with using painkillers even if they decrease length of life to some extent. Obsession with prolonging life is futile and keeps one from truly living. I'm merely against suicide as a primary end.

            1. Vincent, maybe some people should be pressured to die (not by government of course), and what does self-ownership mean to you if we don't have a "hardline" right to die? How do you know what "encourages" people to die? How do you know what is undignified? And when you say, "I'm merely against suicide as a primary end," whose "primary end" are you talking about?

    2. So a 20 year old going through a rough patch is the same thing as someone with a terminal illness that cause severe pain/discomfort? Which is what the majority of us have been talking about.

      To answer your question we do what we are willing and able to do to help the depressed person, if it doesn't work the decision is theirs. If they still opt for suicide it would be better to go to a doctor for help than hanging from a rope until you choke to death.

      1. This discussion has mostly been about terminal patients, but if we legalize assisted suicide, would we not be opening it to all legal adults or would the government decide who is and isn't allowed to be suicidal?

        If we allow suicide-on-demand which is essentially what the pill from the video shows, couldn't anyone do it before any attempts to dissuade them?

    3. VM

      What does "affirm them" even mean? You're an idiot! So now we are supposed to go around affirming each other? It's your life you decide!

      And if a child makes a bad decision about ending their life, the parents need to act, and if no one is there to help (like you) than that is the price we pay for liberty!

      1. It means "should we affirm their decision?"

        1. I would feel more comfortable if you affirmed their right to decide!

  14. This might have been great if it was a real article, instead of a stupid set of sound bites. But I guess Reason has joined the infantile age, where everything has to be spoon-fed to the reading-impaired.

    1. What would you have added to the article or discourse for those of us who are reading impaired?

  15. Watching my own father slowly dying of Parkinson's has been a rough trip. He is now at the point where two way communication is all but impossible. In a week of daily visits we might get one brief, two or three minute flash of semi-lucidity. From those exchanges it is obvious that his perception of the world around him is blurred and piecemeal. He barely has the ability to feed himself. Everything else has to be done for him.

    Due to the possibility that I carry this trait in my genes as well I am facing the chance of traveling the same path. I am planning to procure or build some object ? perhaps a statue ? in which I can secretly conceal a small 45 caliber derringer I have. The difficult part is how with Parkinson's judgment can degrade at a different rate from other mental faculties. I'd probably have to literally pull the trigger before things got really bad just because waiting for things to be intolerable would put me in a state where I couldn't stay focused long enough to do the deed myself.

    1. Sorry about your dad. Did your father and you ever discuss assisted suicide? Sounds like you are living the nightmare we are talking about.

      1. My dad has a DNR filed with each of his care givers to ensure that no heroic measures are taken. We never talked about assisted suicide.

        One of the worst aspects of Parkinson's is the loss of judgment even while he had the ability to enjoy what life he did have. Not that he couldn't respond - he just had no ability to focus for more than a few seconds.

      2. Exactly. Tejicano, you might try contacting Compassion & Choices. They may be able to provide help.

        I'm so sorry about your father. Mine died last year from Alzheimer's.

        Hugs and peace,
        Penny

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  17. Death with dignity may also go a long way in preventing the frustration many have with society and the tragic ways they commit 'suicide' often taking others with them....

  18. I love the, "You shouldn't have the freedom to __________, because then the government might make you __________" argument.

    That's just brilliant. So many funny things to fill in there besides 'kill yourself' that I couldn't even decide what to go with.

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  20. I am not religious, but others who are believe everyone should live according to whatever THEIR belief system dictates?

    Why is it that I'm not free to choose my own end of life if I become terminally ill?

    I was diagnosed with stage 3 aggressive breast cancer in 2008. I can damn well guarantee if I become terminal, I WILL end my life once *I* decide my suffering needs to end.

    The Death with Dignity Act passing in every state should happen. Those who believe in fire and brimstone can suffer as much as they'd like if faced with a terminal disease. I deserve to have a choice. It'd be comforting to know I could die peacefully as opposed to slitting my wrists, or shooting myself in the head, alone in a hotel room, or parked in my car somewhere.

    1. "But our lives belong to god!" And who speaks for god, why they do. It's a nice racket.

      And there seems to be a gene in most people, where they want to have control over the lives of others, which makes selling liberty in this case very difficult, at least until cancer strikes them. The fools! I hope you cancer is in remission.

      1. Thank you MoMark, it is in remission at this time, but statistics for survival for my particular type of breast cancer aren't very promising.

        That, plus becoming involved with supporting others with breast cancer, dealing with the horror of knowing what our death experience will be like once terminal...and the added pleasure of our loved ones watching us slowly be eaten alive by a disease which still involves amputation, poison and radiation burns...how barbaric.

        Hell? Why yes, I've seen Hell with my own eyes. Many many times, and it's not a place that evil people go once they die.

        My life belongs to me, and I will choose my own end of life if cancer returns and I am diagnosed terminal.

        I am in the beginning stages of forming a Death with Dignity advocacy group in Texas.

        I plan to make a difference before my life is over. It's going to be an uphill climb, but well worth what ever controversy may occur.

        Freedom is worth fighting for, and we all deserve to have control of our end of life choices.

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