The New York State Court of Appeals, in Meyers, et. al. v. Schneiderman, et.al, on September 7, 2017, ruled that assisted suicide remains illegal in New York. Specifically, the Court affirmed lower court rulings that that the state legislature has a rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide. The Court rejected the argument that New York State Constitution protects the right to physician-assisted suicide or “aid-in-dying,” defined by Plaintiffs as the right of a mentally competent and terminally ill person to obtain a prescription for a lethal dosage of drugs from a physician.
The Plaintiffs, three competent and terminally individuals– joined by a group of physician practicing end of life care and the non-profit group, End of Life Choices–challenged the application of New York criminal law to physicians willing to provide mentally competent and terminally ill patients with a prescription for medication to end their lives. Primarily, they argued that their fundamental right to self-determination encompassed the right to choose aid-in -dying. The Court disagreed and ruled that, although New York has long recognized a competent adult’s right to forgo life-saving medical care, there was no fundamental right to aid-in-dying. The Court maintained a bright-line distinction between an individual’s right to refuse life-sustaining treatment and assisted suicide. The Court noted that “the right to refuse medical intervention is at least partially rooted in notions of bodily integrity, as the right to refuse treatment is a consequence of a person’s right to resist unwanted bodily invasions.” (In a separate development, the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) Center for Ethics and Human Rights recently released a new position statement recognizing that competent patients have an acknowledged right to voluntarily stop eating and drinking (VSED) as a means to hasten their dying). In contrast to withholding life-sustaining treatment, the Court found that aid-in-dying, by contrast, involves a physician actively prescribing lethal drugs for the purpose of directly causing the patient’s death.
The Court also disagreed with the Plaintiffs’ assertion that the prohibition on assisted suicide is not rationally related to legitimate state interests. The Court found that the state has a legitimate purpose in guarding against the risk of mistake and abuse and noted that legalizing assisted suicide would pose profound risks to many individuals who are ill and vulnerable. In his concurring opinion, Judge Fahey also noted that individuals with disabilities could be at significant long term risk if physician-assisted suicide were legal, as the use of the term “dignified death” to justify legalizing assisted suicide often described indignities of dependence on others. Quoting the amicus briefs of Disabilities Rights groups, he noted that “[l]egalizing assisted suicide could enshrine in the law the prejudice that death is preferable to receiving the assistance that many disabled people rely on” and emphasized that “there is no lack of nobility or true dignity in being dependent on others.”
In short, the Meyers decision confirms long-standing New York State law and policy. Essentially, the Court deferred to the state legislature and noted that states that have permitted assisted suicide –including Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado and the District of Columbia–had only done so through considered legislative action.
This Decision does highlight the importance for every individual of documenting advance health care directives. While these directives cannot include assisted suicide in New York, they can include specific directives on care and the withholding of life-sustaining treatment in the face of terminal illness. Contact an experienced elder law/estate planning attorney to ensure your advance health care directives are appropriately documented and updated as needed.
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