Montana has become the third state to allow physician-assisted suicide.
A state judge ruled last Friday that a mentally competent person who is terminally ill has a right to die by assisted suicide.
In her ruling, Judge Dorothy McCarter stated that the "Montana constitutional rights of individual privacy and human dignity, taken together, encompass the right of a competent terminally (ill) patient to die with dignity."
The court's ruling allows physicians to provide life-ending medication to such patients without facing criminal prosecution.
The decision makes Montana the third state to legalize assisted suicide. Washington voters approved the practice on the November ballot and Oregon began the practice in 1997.
Robert Baxter, 75, who brought the case, died late Friday without learning of the ruling. He suffered from a deadly form of leukemia and was sleeping when his family received the phone call Friday from Baxter's lawyer, Mark Connell, with the judge's ruling, Montana's News Station reported. He never woke up and died later that day.
His family told Montana's News Station on Monday that even though their family couldn't benefit from the assisted suicide ruling, they hope other families will.
Other plaintiffs in the case, including Compassion & Choices, an organization which supports "dying and end-of-life choices," welcomed the ruling.
But pro-life groups have denounced the ruling as opening the gates for "suicide-on-demand" in Montana.
"Anyone who survives on medication will be entitled to assisted suicide, and there are no safeguards ensuring that persons requesting suicide are not suffering from a treatable mental illness.," commented Denise Burke, vice president of legal affairs for Americans United for Life.
Assisted suicide is voluntary but other forms of euthanasia may not be.
"This ruling begins the descent toward euthanasia and even a duty to die in Montana," said AUL president and CEO Dr. Charmaine Yoest.
"We have already seen cases in Oregon where patients are denied state insurance coverage for life-saving treatments and are told instead the state will pay for their suicides. Assisting someone in committing suicide is never a compassionate choice."
State Attorney General Mike McGrath said he expects the state to appeal the ruling. During Baxter's hearing, his office said a decision about assisted suicide should be decided by the state legislature, not the court system.
According to Montana's News Station, McGrath says it's a complicated constitutional issue and the Supreme Court should rule on it.