State’s highest court rules there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide

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New Yorkers do not have a constitutional right to “aid-in-dying” drugs and procedures, according to a decision by the state’s highest court released Thursday.

The New York State Court of Appeals has rejected a plaintiff’s argument that a person has a fundamental constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide in New York state.

In the case Myers v. Schneiderman, terminally ill patients Steve Goldenberg, Sara Myers and Eric Seiff sued the state of New York in 2015 for the right to die under the supervision of doctors, claiming it was their right to do so under the state Constitution.

They argued that New York has “long recognized the existence of a person’s fundamental right to self-determination over his or her own body and the type of medical treatment he or she receives.”

But the state’s highest court rejected that argument and ended its decision by stating “plaintiffs’ claims are better addressed to the Legislature.”

A Medical Aid in Dying bill has been introduced in the Legislature for the last three sessions, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of barbitutaes to mentally competent, terminally ill patients.

However, right-to-life groups, advocates for the disabled and some religious organizations have successfully fought the bill thus far.

Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative Christian organization that has staunchly opposed aid-in-dying legislation, says the Court of Appeals ruling does three things.

“It demonstrates respect for the Constitution of the state of New York. Nothing in our state’s Constitution in any way affirms physician-assisted suicide, and the Court acknowledged that reality.” McGuire said. “Second, the decision upholds the role of the Legislature as policymaker. Third, the decision recognizes that the state ‘has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem.’

“All New Yorkers should cheer today’s decision … Confronted with a controversial and emotionally charged case, the New York Court of Appeals has done the right thing in declining the plaintiffs’ invitation to legislate from the bench,” McGuire added.

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Support for the plaintiffs was demonstrated by a number of amicus briefs submitted by parties representing patients and their families; medical, religious and civil liberties groups; legal associations and a coalition of law professors.

Ed Schallert, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, co-counsel in the case, said Thursday that experience with aid in dying policies in states where it is legal has “thoroughly debunked” the reasons given by New York state as to why the practice is prohibited.

“The availability of aid in dying extends the lives of terminally ill patients by relieving them of anxiety about their deaths, and it avoids the harm of patients taking their lives prematurely because of concerns about enduring a painful death,” Schallert said. “Unfortunately, the court’s decision prevents plaintiffs from proving these facts.”

Laurie Leonard, executive director of End of Life Choices New York, said that in the two years since the case was brought, two of the patient plaintiffs, Steve Goldenberg and Sara Myers, have died.

“They were deprived of the option of aid in dying and now the court has disappointingly ruled that patients do not have such a right in New York,” Leonard said. “We will continue to fight to establish the right to aid in dying in the New York State Legislature, so that we can join the six other states and the District of Columbia in which aid in dying is legal.”