NY court rules with disability activists in assisted suicide case

bottle of medications on a prescription note
NY ruling on assisted suicide case

Echoing the arguments of an amicus brief filed by 11 disability rights groups, a New York state court has rejected a challenge to the state’s ban on physician-assisted suicide, finding that any future changes in the law must come from the state legislature.

In a 36-page decision, the New York State Appellate Division, First Department ruled May 3 that the state law unequivocally bans the procedure, which states that a person who “intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide,” is guilty of second-degree manslaughter.

“Whatever label one puts on the act that plaintiffs are asking us to permit, it unquestionably fits that literal description, since there is a direct causative link between the medication proposed to be administered by plaintiff physicians and their patients’ demise…In light of the plain meaning of the term suicide, we hold, as a matter of statutory construction, that Penal Law sections 120.30 and 125.15 prohibit aid-in-dying,” the court ruled.

End of Life Choices New York, which was represented by Disability Rights Legal Center and Debevoise & Plimpton, contended that a right to physician-assisted suicide derives from the right to refuse medical treatment, which has been recognized as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court distinguished between these two sources of protected rights, such a ruling does not foreclose states from recognizing broader rights under their own state laws. The First Department, however, refused to do so, much to the relief of the disability activists groups such as Not Dead Yet and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, who have long argued that such laws incentivize doctors to withhold treatment from people with disabilities.

“These are quintessential disability issues…assisted suicide laws authorize doctors to decide who is eligible – i.e., whose condition is ‘terminal’ and whose desire to commit suicide is ‘rational,’ the amicus brief stated. “In the context of our current healthcare system, with profit motives of insurance and managed care companies, and financial and other pressures on family members and individuals, the risks of subtle and even blatant coercion are great.”

On May 10, state representatives introduced the Medical Aid in Dying Act in the State Assembly. Similar to laws in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California, the law would only allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, meaning they have a life expectancy of six months or less, according to the judgment of two doctors.

Disability activists from the Center for Disability Rights held protests at the press conferences introducing the bill.