New York's highest court unanimously upheld the state's ban on assisted suicide, rejecting a bid from advocates to declare it a constitutional right.
Three plaintiffs—two of whom died before the court ruled; one of whom is in remission—asked the court to declare a constitutional right to assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and protect from prosecution any doctor who participated in the suicide. The court rejected the plaintiffs in a 5-0 ruling, saying the constitution contained no such right.
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"We reject plaintiffs' argument that an individual has a fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying as they define it," the court ruled. "We also reject plaintiffs' assertion that the State's prohibition on assisted suicide is not rationally related to legitimate state interests."
The court said the plaintiffs' complaint "would require that we read into the statutes words and meaning wholly absent from their text," and the state prohibition contained "no exceptions" to the criminal prosecution of those who participate in a suicide. It also drew a clear definition between refusing medical treatment that would further delay death and actively committing suicide, pointing to the intent of each practice.
"The State also has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem," the court ruled. The ruling won support from anti-assisted suicide advocates. J.J. Hanson, founder of the anti-euthanasia Patient Rights Action Fund, hailed the court's decision as a victory for "truth and compassion."
"Today New York State’s high court has ruled unanimously in favor of truth and compassion as they affirmed the constitutionality of New York’s prohibition of assisted suicide," Hanson said in a statement. " We applaud the court for its decision to protect the vulnerable."
The ruling does not mean the debate over assisted suicide is over. The court said the state constitution may not necessarily strike down a law legalizing the practice. Judge Jenny Rivera agreed the state constitution did not contain a right to die in a concurring ruling, but added in a concurring opinion that the state's interests in prohibiting assisted suicide "are not absolute or unconditional." She compared the practice of assisted suicide to palliative sedation and a patient's right to end life-sustaining treatment, saying there was no "meaningful [difference] in the constitutional sense."
Judge Eugene Fahey dismissed the plaintiffs' claims that the assisted suicide ban did not serve a legitimate state interest. He disputed Rivera's argument that assisted suicide was no different than patient-led sedation in a concurring opinion. He also acknowledged the difference between assisted suicide, in which a patient willingly takes a lethal dose of medication, and euthanasia, in which a doctor administers the lethal dose. He pointed to the Netherlands' expansion of assisted suicide to include the euthanizing of children and the mentally ill, rather than the terminally ill adult patients for which the option was originally designed.
"In the United States active euthanasia is nowhere legal, whereas physician-assisted suicide is permitted in six states and the District of Columbia. I am not convinced, however, that this state of affairs will last," he said. "The line between physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia is difficult to defend. … The Legislature may rationally conclude that the clarity and certainty of an absolute ban best protects against the inherent risks of physician-assisted suicide."
Despite his disagreements with Rivera, Fahey concluded that advocates for euthanasia should turn to the legislature, rather than the courts to advance their agenda. He said the unanimous ruling made it "difficult to conceive of such a case" that would cause the court to reverse itself in the future.
"Plaintiffs' claims are better addressed to the Legislature," he said.
Compassion & Choices, the nation's largest assisted suicide organization, intends to do just that. The group, which filed an amicus brief in the case, has led the legislative battle to have the practice legalized in six states and Washington. Sixteen states have rejected bills to legalize the practice in 2017, most recently in Nevada in June. Corinne Carey, New York State campaign director for Compassion & Choices, said the group intends pass legislation in 2018 in New York, citing high polling numbers in the state.
"While we were supportive of the plaintiffs in this case, now we urge legislature and Gov. Cuomo honor the wishes of more than three-quarters of their constituents by enacting a law in 2018 authorizing medical aid in dying as an option for terminally ill adults to end unbearable suffering," Carey said in a statement. "We are optimistic that [Gov. Andrew Cuomo will] be supportive when the legislature sends him a bill."
Hanson, a Marine Corps veteran who survived a terminal brain cancer diagnosis before a recent recurrence, said his group will continue to fight Compassion & Choices and other assisted suicide advocates at the state and local level. He said such laws "open wide the door for abuse."
"Laws that prohibit assisted suicide actually protect people with terminal illness, people with depression, people with disabilities, the elderly and others," he said. "When assisted suicide, the cheaper option, becomes legal in our profit driven health care system, it costs patients the freedom to choose more expensive life-saving treatments and, ultimately, may cost them their lives."