23 May New York Appeals Court To Hear Case on Doctor Aid in Dying
Eric Seiff says his mother begged his father to end her life throughout the two years she suffered from breast cancer before dying in 1955. Mr. Seiff told himself at the time he would never prolong his death.
Mr. Seiff, an 84-year-old lawyer, is among those plaintiffs arguing that doctors should have the right to prescribe a fatal dosage of medication, in most cases barbiturates, to mentally competent terminally ill people. Their case against the state is scheduled to be heard May 30 in the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, the state’s highest court.
Some disability organizations argue allowing doctors to assist in one’s death would put the vulnerable at risk. Health officials should prioritize providing the best treatment to the disabled and ill, said Diane Coleman, president and chief executive of Not Dead Yet, a disability-rights group.
“The proper role of health-care providers and other professionals is to be telling people that their lives are worth living whatever they may experience,” said Ms. Coleman, who is 63 years old and has a neuromuscular disability. She is siding with the state in the case.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is representing the state, contends there is no legal basis for giving this right to doctors, and maintains that the issue should be decided by the legislature. The lower courts have sided with the state and dismissed the case before it could go to trial.
Edwin G. Schallert, a partner with Debevoise & Plimpton, will argue in the Court of Appeals that the plaintiffs have a right to have their argument heard. “Our view is that there should be legal protection around that decision so that someone who is facing unbearable suffering has an option of achieving a peaceful death,” he said.
A spokesman for state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said “aid-in-dying is a very sensitive issue,” which is being discussed in the chamber.
At the center of the case is a debate about whether a state statute prohibiting people from aiding in suicide applies to doctors who would prescribe these medications.
The plaintiffs argue that doctors would be helping people who are terminally ill achieve a more peaceful death, similar to when physicians remove patients from ventilators. Those terminally ill people wouldn’t be committing suicide, said David Leven, senior consultant for End of Life Choices New York.
“[Suicides] are often done impulsively and violently by people who could continue to live and choose not to. Suicides are tragic,” Mr. Leven said. “To the contrary, aid-in-dying is a process in which a person who is going to die is only choosing the means in which they will die.”
Ms. Coleman said regardless of the patient’s condition, helping someone end their life would be aiding a suicide.The practice is legal in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, Colorado and California, as well as the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs said there haven’t been many people who have used the medication or reports of disabled people being exploited in those states. Ms. Coleman contends there haven’t been enough investigations into the practice in those states.
Timothy Quill, a doctor and plaintiff in the case who treats the terminally ill in Rochester, N.Y., said he would suggest more treatment or therapy for patients who want to die.
“It’s only once you’ve done all those things…and somebody is still ready to go that you look at alternative avenues,” Dr. Quill said. If a patient still can’t bear the pain, he would suggest other methods such as not eating or drinking, he said.
Ms. Coleman said if people want to end their life, it is their choice. She just doesn’t want the medical profession to support it. “Why is our society talking about taking this group—old, ill and disabled people—and carving them out of that policy of suicide prevention,” said Ms. Coleman “To us it seems like here we are being devalued again.”
But Mr. Seiff, one of the plaintiffs who was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, said he deserves an option if he ever ends up in the same position as his mother.
“I’m very enthusiastic about living. I don’t have any eagerness to depart this world,” Mr. Seiff said. “If I’m going to go through something where there’s no joy in my life because of the illness and there’s no known way of restoring the vitality that we associate with life, then I would like to have the right to make this most important of decisions myself.”
Appeared in the May. 23, 2017, print edition as ‘Court to Hear Case on Doctor Aid in Dying.’