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The New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, on Thursday unanimously refused to legalize assisted suicide, a huge moment in the state’s fight over the practice. Assisted suicide is the practice, distinguished from a patient refusing medical care, where a doctor prescribes lethal drugs that a patient then self-administers at a time of his or her choosing. In New York, assisting in a suicide is a felony.
In its 5-0 ruling the New York court cited the “long-standing” state interests in banning assisted suicide: “prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians’ role 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.”
Pro-lifers, disability advocates—and, prominently, an Iraq veteran with brain cancer—have successfully fought the legislative push for the practice in New York so far. Assisted suicide advocates, failing in the legislature, have pursued their cause in courts. That’s how the practice became legal in Canada.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1997 decision Vacco v. Quill, upheld New York’s law banning assisted suicide, a clear precedent for courts to follow. But the three terminally ill plaintiffs in the current New York case—two of whom have died since filing the lawsuit in 2015, and one who is in remission—argued that the New York law violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution. That’s an appealing argument in the legal universe post-Obergefell, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that canceled state marriage laws based on equal protection arguments.
Ten state and national disability groups—ADAPT, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Center for Disability Rights, the Disability Rights Center, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, the National Council on Independent Living, the New York Association on Independent Living, Not Dead Yet, Regional Center for Independent Living, and United Spinal Association—had opposed the effort to legalize assisted suicide, a detail media reports on the decision uniformly ignored.
Ten state and national disability groups … had opposed the effort to legalize assisted suicide, a detail media reports on the decision uniformly ignored.
More importantly, the state judges didn’t ignore the disabilities groups. Justice Eugene Fahey wrote a concurring opinion to underscore the threats assisted suicide posed to the poor and the disabled.
“Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would convey a societal value judgment that such ‘indignities’ as physical vulnerability and dependence mean that life no longer has any intrinsic value,” wrote Fahey, citing the amicus brief from the disabilities groups. He also pointed to people from different socioeconomic groups who might be pressured into assisted suicide if medical care was more expensive than the lethal drugs.
The New York Catholic Conference and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a Protestant group that advocates on social issues, celebrated the decision.
“The court’s decision does three important things,” said Rev. Jason McGuire, who heads up New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, in a statement. “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.’”