NY lawsuit filed declaring physician-assisted suicide is legal

by Soli Salgado

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Editor's note: This article was updated Monday at 2:20 p.m. central time to reflect statements from major disability organizations.

On Wednesday, a group of doctors and terminally ill patients filed a lawsuit in New York’s State Supreme Court, asking the court to rule that physician-assisted suicide is legal and not covered by the state’s prohibition of aiding people to take their own lives.

The plaintiffs — three patients, four doctors, a nurse and End of Life Choices New York — argue that the law was intended to prevent individuals from, for instance, assisting a heartbroken teenager in killing himself, The New York Times said, but shouldn’t include doctors who are assisting mentally competent, terminally ill patients who feel they are ready to die. But its customary interpretation of anyone who “intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide” includes doctors who provide fatal doses of medication, and therefore can be prosecuted under manslaughter. The only states where this is legal include Montana, Washington, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont.

Doctors can, however, remove terminally ill patients from life support. The plaintiffs argue that, under the equal protection clause of the State Constitution, accelerating the death of other terminally ill patients should be considered the same.

“What we will be helping the court to see is there are many instances where patients under existing law in medicine can invite medical conduct which precipitates death,” Kathryn Tucker, lead counsel in the case and executive director for the Disability Rights Legal Center, told the Times. “Yet it is somewhat random whether any given patient will fall into this category.”

But Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, said there is a difference between allowing a natural death and providing lethal doses of medication to speed up the process, the Times reported. She also added that it complicates the relationship between patients and physicians — whose primary role should be as their healer — and worries that physician-assisted suicide could eventually become just the fiscally practical option.

Every major national disability organization opposes legalizing it, said Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, including ADAPT, the National Council on Independent Living, and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Coleman said that Oregon—the inspiration for New York’s proposal—reported that the top five reasons doctors prescribed lethal dosage pertained to disability, not terminal status. She added that these considerations are ignored by “compassionate progressives” who claim this issue is a matter of freedom:

  • Predictions that someone will die in six months are often wrong;
  • People who want to die usually have treatable depression and/or need better palliative care;
  • Pressures to cut health care costs in the current fiscal climate make this the wrong time to add doctor prescribed suicide to the options;
  • Abuse of elders and people with disabilities is a growing but often undetected problem, making coercion virtually impossible to identify or prevent.

The plaintiffs are suing Eric Schneiderman, the state attorney general, as well as the district attorneys charged with maintaining the law where the plaintiffs live and practice, including Westchester, Monroe, Saratoga, Bronx and New York counties, according to the Times.

Inspired by Brittany Maynard, a 26 year old California woman who moved to Oregon to be able to die of her terminal brain cancer, New York Sen. Brad Hoylman has proposed a law that would legalize doctors prescribing lethal medication to their terminally ill patients; he is currently seeking co-sponsors. California legislators have recently proposed a bill legalizing assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]

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