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Fall 2017 E-Newsletter

New York Court of Appeals Says No to Physician-Assisted Suicide

On September 7th, the New York State Court of Appeals determined that the New York State Constitution does not provide an individual the right to a physician-assisted suicide. The decision restricts a mentally competent and terminally ill person from obtaining a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs from a physician intended to be taken to cause death.

The case was appealed from the First Department which determined that New York Penal Law statutes provide a valid basis for prosecuting doctors who provide physician-assisted suicides and that those statutes did not violate New York State’s Constitution. The Court of Appeals' decision was careful in noting that New York still recognizes a competent adult’s right to forego life-saving medical care; however, the recognition does not include a constitutional right to aid-in-dying.

The case involved numerous plaintiffs who brought an action against New York State’s attorney general in which they requested declaratory and injunctive relief to permit what they defined as “aid-in-dying.” The plaintiffs sought to have the court rule that physicians who provide aid-in-dying are not liable under the state’s assisted suicide statutes, and further, that physicians who issue prescriptions to terminally ill, mentally competent patients cannot be prosecuted.

The plaintiffs' first argument centered on the assertion that the court should interpret assisted suicide statutes to exclude physicians who provide aid-in-dying. The plaintiff’s sought to have the court interpret physician aid-in-dying outside of the term “suicide” within the statutes. The court rejected such an assertion because, in order to do so, the court’s interpretation would run counter to the literal wording of the statutes. Therefore, the court determined the statutory construction arguments of the plaintiffs were invalid.

The plaintiffs' second argument was based on the New York State Constitution. The plaintiffs argued that, if the assisted suicide statutes applied to aid-in-dying, then the interpretation would violate their Constitutional rights under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses. The argument under the Equal Protection Clause was based on the idea that some, but not all, patients may hasten death by directing the withdrawal or withholding of life-sustaining medical assistance. However, by criminalizing the aid-in-dying, the individuals who are unable to die by declining life-sustaining medical assistance do not have the same right in choosing to die. The court was quick to dismiss this argument because the New York State laws restricting physician-assisted suicide do not unconstitutionally distinguish between individuals. Rather, the court found that the assisted suicide statutes apply to all individuals evenhandedly. The court determined that the statutes allow ALL individuals the right to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment and that NO ONE is permitted to assist a suicide. Therefore, the statute cannot run contrary to the Equal Protection Clause.

The plaintiffs further argued that New York State’s statutes run contrary to the Due Process Clause of the State Constitution. Simply, the plaintiffs argued that their fundamental right to self-determination and to control the course of their medical treatment encompasses the right to choose aid-in-dying. They further argued that the New York State statutes burden that fundamental right. The court first noted that the United States Supreme Court has held that the United States Constitution does not include a fundamental right to assistance in committing suicide. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997). However, the court had to analyze whether New York’s Constitution grants a further right than the United States Constitution. Through an analysis of several New York cases, the court found that they have consistently found a distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatments and assisted suicide. In so finding, the court refused to recognize the right to assisted suicide as a fundamental right.

In finding that the assisted suicide statutes were not a fundamental right, the court only had to find that the statutes were rationally related to a legitimate government interest in order to be upheld. In applying the low-threshold rational basis test, the court found that the state has a legitimate purpose in guarding against the risks of mistake and abuse in assisted suicides. Furthermore, the court found the statutes to be rationally related to this purpose. With that being said, the court found that the statutes were allowed under the New York State Constitution. Overall, the court found that the state had a rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide, and the plaintiffs had no constitutional right to the relief they sought. Therefore, the First Department’s decision was affirmed and the claims were dismissed.

To read a full copy of the decision, click here.

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