The Volokh Conspiracy

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No state constitutional right to assisted suicide, New York high court rules


This reasoning of this morning's lead opinion in Myers v. Schneiderman tracks the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions as applied to the U.S. Constitution in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997) and Vacco v. Quill (1997). The opinion is an unsigned "per curiam" opinion that doesn't seem to have gotten majority support for all of its analysis, but the majority of participating judges agree at least with the result and also with much of the reasoning:

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. …

We have consistently adopted the well-established distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and assisted suicide. The right to refuse medical intervention is at least partially rooted in notions of bodily integrity, as the right to refuse treatment is a consequence of a person's right to resist unwanted bodily invasions. In the case of the terminally ill, refusing treatment involves declining life-sustaining techniques that intervene to delay death. Aid-in-dying, by contrast, involves a physician actively prescribing lethal drugs for the purpose of directly causing the patient's death …

The right asserted by plaintiffs is not fundamental, and therefore the assisted suicide statutes need only be rationally related to a legitimate government interest … Rational basis involves a "strong presumption" that the challenged legislation is valid, and "a party contending otherwise bears the heavy burden of showing that a statute is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes as to be irrational." …

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. 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." These legitimate and important State interests further "satisfy the constitutional requirement that a legislative classification bear a rational relation to some legitimate end."

The Legislature may conclude that those dangers can be effectively regulated and specify the conditions under which it will permit aid-in-dying. Indeed, the jurisdictions that have permitted the practice have done so only through considered legislative action, and those courts to have considered this issue with respect to their own State Constitutions have rejected similar constitutional arguments. At present, the Legislature of this State has permissibly concluded that an absolute ban on assisted suicide is the most reliable, effective, and administrable means of protecting against its dangers.

Judge Jenny Rivera's concurrence argues that, though the ban on assisted suicide is generally constitutional, a "terminally-ill patient" should have a right to "access to physician-prescribed medication that allows the patient in the last painful stage of life to achieve a peaceful death as the end draws near."

The concurrence of Judge Michael J. Garcia, joined by Judge Leslie E. Stein, disagrees with Rivera, arguing that "The legitimate interests advanced by the State support the assisted suicide statutes irrespective of a patient's proximity to death or eligibility for terminal sedation."

Judge Eugene M. Fahey's concurrence agrees with the per curiam opinion but also argues that "the Legislature may reasonably criminalize assisted suicide" (1) "because to permit the practice … would place New York on a slippery slope toward legalizing nonvoluntary euthanasia," and (2)"because a right to assisted suicide by the terminally ill in circumscribed last-resort situations would inevitably expand to include persons who are not terminally ill"; Judge Fahey cites the experience of the Netherlands and Belgium as evidence.

The opinions are very interesting and readable and are worth reading in their entirety, if you're at all interested in the question. Thanks to Stanley Neustadter for the pointer.