Disability rights groups weigh in on New York assisted suicide case

Needle and poison graphic
Assisted Suicide

Eleven disability rights groups, led by Not Dead Yet, filed an amicus brief in support of a recent court decision, currently on appeal, dismissing a challenge to New York State’s physician-assisted suicide law.

“Our basic position is that when some people get suicide prevention while other people get suicide assistance, and the difference is the person’s age, disability or health status, that’s a problem,” NDY President Diane Coleman said in a news release. “It’s a problem of devaluation of people who are being told that others not only agree with their suicide, which is bad enough, but will even help them carry it out.”

Physician-assisted suicide is currently illegal in New York State, as is the case in all states except for Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and, most recently, California.

In February 2015, End of Life Choices New York filed a lawsuit in state court, on behalf of three individuals, contending that voluntary suicide does not constitute suicide under state law and that the New York Constitution protects the rights of people “to make autonomous decisions about their bodies and how they will die.” They are represented by Debevoise & Plimpton and the Disability Rights Legal Center, which previously challenged California’s ban prior to its legalization.

In October, the Supreme Court for New York County ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that the ban violated neither their due process nor equal protection rights.

In states with physician-assisted suicide laws, mentally competent, terminally ill patients may request that doctors prescribe them lethal medications. A terminal illness is defined as having six months or less to live, according to the opinions of two separate doctors. A 15-day waiting period is imposed as well.

NDY and other disability rights amici argue these safeguards fail to protect patients with disabilities. As they see it, a diagnosis of terminal illness is inherently subjective, often rooted in negative assumptions about disability.

In addition, they argue that physician-assisted suicide measures incentivize doctors to cut costs by withholding care and that the creation of an exception to state suicide prevention services for terminally ill patients constitutes a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Fear, bias, and prejudice against disability are inextricably intertwined in these assumptions and play a significant role in assisted suicide,” the amicus brief states. “Our society values and desires ‘healthy’ bodies and minds. The idea that any person with a disability could be a happy, contributing member of society is outside the experience or thinking of most non-disabled persons.”

Along with the NDY, 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, the Regional Center for Independent Living, ADAPT, and the United Spinal Association signed onto the amicus brief.