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Doctor-Assisted Suicide Not a Constitutional Right, Rules New York's Top Court

Terminally ill people do not have a state constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, New York's highest court ruled Thursday.

By Tom Precious

Terminally ill people do not have a state constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, New York's highest court ruled Thursday.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled that state law is clear in prohibiting anyone, including doctors, from assisting in a suicide.

The issue pitted some dying people and portions of the medical community against religious groups and some disabled people who worried that opening the door to aid-in-dying laws in New York could coerce especially vulnerable individuals to commit suicide.

The case was brought by three terminally ill people from New York City, three of whom have since died, along with several physicians and a group called End of Life Choices.

The plaintiffs appealed to the New York courts for a constitutional right that would permit doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to a mentally competent and terminally ill patient.

The high court, in a 5-0 decision, sided with lower court rulings that blocked the effort.

"Plaintiffs initially assert that we should interpret the assisted suicide statutes to exclude physicians who provide aid-in-dying. Such a reading would run counter to our fundamental tenets of statutory construction, and would require that we read into the statute words and meaning wholly absent from their text,'' Judge Jenny Rivera wrote in the lead decision. Two of the five judges also wrote concurring decisions and two judges on the seven-member panel did not take participate in the case.

"Aid-in-dying falls squarely within the ordinary meaning of the statutory prohibition on assisting a suicide,'' the decision stated. "The assisted suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions,'' the court added.

After being blocked in their attempt to get the Legislature to address their concerns, the plaintiffs went to the courts and said New York's position violates patients' rights to due process and equal protection. They argued that some patients are permitted to "hasten death" by refusing life-saving treatments.

The court said that while such decisions are allowed in New York, the law is also clear that it is illegal to assist in someone's suicide.

The plaintiffs, in bringing the case against state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, also sought an injunction banning the prosecution of physicians who prescribe life-ending drugs to patients. The court said there is no "fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying" and that the state Legislature has a "rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide."

The decision was immediately hailed by the New York State Catholic Conference and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, two religious organizations.

"The decision is a significant victory for those who would be most at risk of abuse and most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, including the isolated elderly, persons with disabilities and those who are depressed and overcome with hopelessness,'' said Kathleen M. Gallagher of the Catholic Conference, which represents the church's bishops in the state.

At the time of oral arguments before the top court's judges this past spring, End of Life Choices New York, which counsels terminally ill people and gets some of its funding from George Soros' Open Society Foundations, argued that medically competent, terminally ill people who choose the route of taking prescribed lethal drugs are not committing suicide because they are going to die anyway. "We feel it's very important that people have the right to a peaceful death,'' the group's director, Laurie Leonard, said at the time.

A mid-level appeals court, however, rejected the plaintiffs' request, in part, because the issue already was settled in the 1997 case of Vacco v. Quill, which was brought by then-Attorney General Dennis Vacco. The U.S. Supreme Court in that case upheld New York's right to outlaw physician-assisted suicide.

Supporters of the plaintiffs, which included the New York Civil Liberties Union, had argued that six other states and the District of Columbia allow some level of physician help for terminally ill people who want to commit suicide. New York could build in protections, like other jurisdictions, such as mandatory waiting times and requiring two physicians to determine that a patient's illness is terminal and the person is mentally competent.

(c)2017 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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