In an important case that attracted a friend of the court brief from Agudath Israel of America, the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has rejected an attempt to legalize physician-assisted suicide and to declare a constitutional right to “aid in dying”.
The Court, in a unanimous decision, held that New York’s current statute, which makes “assisted suicide” illegal, must be interpreted according to the plain meaning of the words, and applied to any efforts by a physician to assist a patient in ending his or her life. The plaintiffs in the case—several terminally ill patients, some individual medical providers, and an organization called “End of Life Choices”—had argued that the statute should not be interpreted to include what it called “aid in dying.”
The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that New York’s assisted suicide statute violates the rights of patients under the Equal Protection Clause of the New York State Constitution, because some patients can direct the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical assistance while those who wish to take medication that will end their lives cannot. The Court made clear that there was no Equal Protection violation: as the Court put it, “everyone . . . is . . . entitled to refuse unwanted . . . medical treatment; no one is permitted to assist a suicide.”
The Court further rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that under the Due Process Clause of the New York Constitution, patients have a right to self-determination that includes the right to die or to obtain assistance from another to end one’s life. The Court thus held that there is no such thing as a “fundamental” right to suicide, that the state has a “significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide”, which includes “maintaining physicians’ role as their patients’ healers; protecting vulnerable people from . . . psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide towards euthanasia.”
Agudath Israel of America submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case, urging that assisted suicide not be legalized. Agudath Israel’s brief, authored by Agudath Israel’s Special Counsel Mordechai Biser, with assistance from law student Reuven Rosen and Agudath Israel attorney Avrohom Weinstock, advanced virtually all of the same arguments that the Court of Appeals stated in its final decision.
A particularly noteworthy part of the Agudath Israel brief drew on the experience of Chayim Aruchim, the division of Agudath Israel designed to help individuals and families in end-of-life situations:
“As an organization whose Chayim Aruchim division often gets calls from patients or their families in end-of-life situations, Agudath Israel is aware of many cases in which health care facilities put intense pressure on families to ‘end the suffering’ of terminally ill patients by allowing the facility to take steps to hasten their deaths. Allowing physicians to directly provide lethal medication to their patients would give doctors the ability to not only pressure patients into declining medical treatment, but toward actually choosing to end their lives.”
Mordechai Biser hailed the New York Court of Appeals decision. “We are pleased that the Court has rejected this attempt to overturn current law and legalize physician-assisted suicide, and that the Court, as our brief had argued, found no constitutional right to commit suicide or allow assisted suicide. This is a major victory for those committed to the preservation of life. It should also serve notice on doctors and health care facilities that attempts to pressure patients and their families into taking steps to end their lives could well run afoul of the state’s ban on assisted suicide.”