Everyone Has the Right to Refuse Life Saving Medical Treatment
But New York Statutes Prohibiting Assisted Suicide Are Constitutional
Kirk Kekorian, a medical doctor, brought nationwide attention to the idea of assisting a terminally ill person to end his or life. For many suffering makes life not worth living.
In Myers v. Schneiderman, No. 77, 2017 WL 3897181 (N.Y. Sept. 7, 2017), the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court addressed the issue of assisted suicide and summarized its conclusion, as follows:
“Plaintiffs ask us to declare a constitutional right to “aid-in-dying,” which they define (and we refer to herein) as the right of a mentally competent and terminally ill person to obtain a prescription for a lethal dosage of drugs from a physician, to be taken at some point to cause death. Although New York has long recognized a competent adult’s right to forgo life-saving medical care, we reject plaintiffs’ argument that an individual has a fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying as they define it. We also reject plaintiffs’ assertion that the State’s prohibition on assisted suicide is not rationally related to legitimate state interests.”
The Court emphasized that the statute applies broadly and without exception: “The assisted suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions, and the statutes are unqualified in scope…”
The issue has been before the United States Supreme Court which has already ruled that New York State’s laws banning assisted suicide do not deny equal protection under the United States Constitution to those charged with assisting suicide. In Myers, the Court of Appeals saw no reason for ruling differently under the New York State Constitution, observing:
In Vacco v. Quill, the United States Supreme Court held that New York State’s laws banning assisted suicide do not unconstitutionally distinguish between individuals (521 U.S. 793, 797  ). As the Court explained, “[e]veryone, regardless of physical condition, is entitled, if competent, to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment; no one is permitted to assist a suicide. Generally, laws that apply evenhandedly to all unquestionably comply with equal protection” (id. at 800 [emphasis in original] ). The Supreme Court has not retreated from that conclusion, and we see no reason to hold otherwise.
The Court in Myers addressed the issues of whether the right to assist a suicide was a fundamental right and found it was not. The Court then addressed observed that since “[t]he right asserted by plaintiffs is not fundamental…. the assisted suicide statutes need only be rationally related to a legitimate government interest…” Id. at 17. The Court found that the statute was rationally related to a legitimate purpose. The Myers Court thus concluded:
As to the right asserted here, the State pursues a legitimate purpose in guarding against the risks of mistake and abuse. The State may rationally seek to prevent the distribution of prescriptions for lethal dosages of drugs that could, upon fulfillment, be deliberately or accidentally misused. The State also has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem (see Bezio, 21 N.Y.3d at 104, 967 N.Y.S.2d 660, 989 N.E.2d 942; Storar, 52 N.Y.2d at 377, 438 N.Y.S.2d 266, 420 N.E.2d 64; see also Glucksberg, 521 U.S. at 729). As summarized by the Supreme Court, the State’s interests in prohibiting assisted suicide include: “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” (Vacco, 521 U.S. at 808-809). These legitimate and important State interests further “satisfy the constitutional requirement that a legislative classification bear a rational relation to some legitimate end” (id. at 809).
The way to understand Myers is to focus on the Legislature and not the Courts. There may come a time when New York, like Oregon, enacts Physician aid in dying (PAD). For New York that time has not come. Our Courts have ruled the statutes prohibiting assisted suicide are constitutional.