29 May N.Y.’s highest court to hear ‘aid in dying’ appeal
by Claire Hughes
As proponents of medical aid in dying continue to push for legislation to let New York doctors prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients, the state’s highest court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case involving three terminally ill patients who had pursued a court order protecting their doctors if they did just that.
Among the key issues in Myers v. Schneiderman is whether current laws prohibiting people from assisting others in killing themselves apply to doctors who would prescribe medications that would cause someone to die.
Lower courts have dismissed the case, siding with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that current statutes encompass the practice of prescribing lethal drugs. Schneiderman argues that the issue involves “sensitive policy judgments” better left to state lawmakers than to the courts.
“New York law has long recognized a right to refuse medical treatment, but not a right to receive assistance in committing suicide,” Schneiderman’s brief to the New York Court of Appeals in Albany states.
But the plaintiffs argue that prescribing a lethal drug is not assisted suicide. The three patients in the original lawsuit filed in February 2015 — two have since died — were mentally competent and terminally ill. They weren’t looking to end their lives prematurely, but to decide that their lives would end without undue suffering, said David C. Leven, senior consultant to the nonprofit End of Life Choices New York, one of the plaintiffs.
“It’s not just that they want to die — they are dying,” Leven said. “The only question is the manner in which they will die, and who will make the decision.
“In our view, this is a most private, personal and intimate decision, which patients in consultation with their doctors and family members should have a right to make,” he said.
Ten groups have submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the plaintiffs, and four have opposed them.
Among the opponents are the New York State Catholic Conference and a consortium of disability rights groups, who both argue that the lower courts were right to equate what the plaintiffs term “aid in dying” with “assisted suicide,” which they believe would put vulnerable people at risk for abuse. People with disabilities may be susceptible to being coerced into assisted suicide because they feel like a burden to others or understand that treating their condition is costly, the disability rights groups argue.
Five of the six judges on the Court of Appeals will hear the case. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore will not, because she was a defendant in the original lawsuit, as district attorney of Westchester County at the time.
If the Court of Appeals decides in favor of the plaintiffs, it does not mean that doctors may prescribe lethal medications, only that the patients and doctors may go back to the lower courts to pursue their case.
Meanwhile, proponents of proposed legislation to permit medical aid in dying in the state concede their efforts will likely not result this year in New York joining six states and the District of Columbia in allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients with six months or less to live.