NY’s Highest Court Hears Arguments on Physician-Assisted Suicide

July 21, 2017 | Benjamin P. Malerba | Ada Kozicz | Health Services

The New York Court of Appeals recently heard arguments in the Myers v. Schneiderman lawsuit, which challenges the legality of physician assisted suicide and whether a patient should have the right to choose a peaceful death on his or her own terms. As the law currently stands, New York Penal Law Section 125.15 prohibits physician-assisted suicide by stating that any person, physician or otherwise, is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when he or she “intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide.”

End of Life Choices New York, the advocacy group that brought the most recent lawsuit, is fighting to overturn this law on grounds that terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to die and such deaths should be distinguishable from suicide. “[W]e don’t consider it suicide because these are people who are going to die soon,” explained Laurie Leonard, the executive director of End of Life Choices New York. “They don’t want to die. They’re just choosing how to die.” Their lawsuit comes after failed attempts to pass a bill through the New York legislature that would legalize physician-assisted suicide, and after two previous landmark decisions upheld the New York law.

End of life decision-making and, in particular, the right of a terminally ill patient to decide how to die, remains a highly controversial topic among legislators, physicians, patients and other stakeholders. Opponents argue that if the lawsuit is successful, physicians will be required to discuss the option of physician-assisted suicide with their patients, and patients may misconstrue the “right to die” as a “duty to die” as a result of subtle pressures to exercise such right to physician-assisted suicide. Opponents worry that patients who are elderly and/or disabled may be most vulnerable to such pressures.

The New York Court of Appeals will not rule on the merits of the case but will decide whether the lower courts erred in dismissing the case before hearing its merits. If the courts ultimately rule in favor of the plaintiffs, end of life advocates believe that certain safeguards can be put into place to address opponents’ concerns. Such measures include imposing a mandatory waiting period for patients considering physician-assisted suicide, requiring at least two physicians to determine that the patient is terminally ill (i.e., near death) and mentally competent to make such a decision, and only permitting the use of medication that can be self-administered by the patient and does not require direct assistance from a physician or another person.

Currently, six states have legalized physician assisted suicide, and there are numerous legislative bills and lawsuits pending in other states, like in New York, on the issue.

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