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New York Court Of Appeals Rejects Physician-Assisted Suicide

On September 7, 2017, the New York Court of Appeals released its decision in the case of Myers v. Schneiderman, 2017 NY Slip Op. 06412. In this case, the plaintiffs sought to establish a “right” to physician-assisted suicide under the Constitution of the State of New York. In a 5-0 decision, the Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiffs’ claims and affirmed that the state’s existing laws against physician-assisted suicide are constitutional.

The Court’s decision in Myers is well-thought-out and sensible. In Myers, the plaintiffs claimed that the New York laws banning assisted suicide—Penal Law §§ 120.30 and 125.15(3)—should be interpreted “to exclude physicians who provide aid-in-dying.” Myers, slip op. at 5. Alternatively, the plaintiffs argued that these statutes violate the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution of the State of New York.

The plaintiffs’ arguments were weak, and the Court found them unpersuasive. The Court declined to re-interpret the two state laws, noting that they clearly apply to all efforts to assist in a suicide and adding that in People v. Duffy, 79 N.Y.2d 611 (1992), the Court had already ruled that the statutes banned acts “motivated by ‘sympathetic’ concerns, such as the desire to relieve a terminally ill person from the agony of a painful disease.” Myers, slip op. at 6-7. The Court also denied the plaintiffs’ equal protection claims, reasoning that the Supreme Court of the United States had rejected a similar claim about New York’s assisted suicide ban in Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793 (1997). Myers, slip op. at 7-8.

The plaintiffs’ due process claim—which was slightly less far-fetched than their other claims—was based on the argument that the New York State Constitution guarantees a “fundamental right to self-determination [that] encompasses the right to choose aid-in-dying.” Myers, slip op. at 8. The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a similar claim regarding another state’s law (see Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997)), but the plaintiffs contended that our state constitution’s Due Process Clause should be interpreted differently. The Court rejected this argument as well, ruling that the Constitution of the State of New York does not guarantee a fundamental right to assisted suicide. Myers, slip op. at 10. The Court emphasized that the state was within its rights to allow individuals to refuse life-sustaining treatment while still banning assisted suicide. Because there is no fundamental right to assisted suicide, the Court analyzed the due process claim using “rational basis” review, finding that numerous rational reasons could support the state’s ban on assisted suicide. Myers, slip op. at 11-12. Here is the Court’s reasoning:

The State may rationally seek to prevent the distribution of prescriptions for lethal dosages of drugs that could, upon fulfillment, be deliberately or accidentally misused. The State also has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem… [The] State’s interests in prohibiting assisted suicide include: “prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians’ roles as their patients’ healers; protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide towards euthanasia.

Myers, slip op. at 12. Of course, the rational reasons that the Court cited are the very same reasons that the State of New York should continue to ban physician-assisted suicide.

All New Yorkers should cheer the decision in Myers v. Schneiderman. Confronted with a controversial and emotionally charged case, the New York Court of Appeals did the right thing in declining the plaintiffs’ invitation to legislate from the bench. The Court’s decision does three important things. First, 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. 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.” Myers, slip op. at 12.

This decision will save lives. Now that the court battle is over, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms looks forward to continued success in defeating efforts to pass physician-assisted suicide legislation. Our state can do better than physician-assisted suicide, and people living with terminal illnesses deserve better than physician-assisted suicide.