NY’s Highest Court Affirms that Assisted Suicide Is Illegal


By Joey Aron, Esq.

The Court of Appeals – the highest court in the State of New York – has upheld New York’s assisted suicide law,which criminalizes “promoting a suicide attempt” by “intentionally caus[ing] or aid[ing] another person to attempt suicide” or “to commit suicide.” These crimes are felonies, and depending on the circumstances, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The law was challenged by three terminally ill patients, as well as some physicians, who asserted that the law violates the New York Constitution when applied to doctors who prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. The doctors also claimed that “physician-assisted suicide” isn’t technically “suicide,” since the drugs merely hasten the death of them terminally ill patients, who regardless cannot continue “living” in any meaningful sense.

The Court rejected both arguments. The Court noted that the United States Supreme Court had already determined that New York’s assisted-suicide law did not violate the United States Constitution. Therefore, there would be little reason to assume that New York’s Constitution offers any more freedom to die than does the Constitution of the United States.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State has either a “compelling interest” or “rational basis” – standards used by courts to determine whether a law is constitutional – in prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. The Court pointed out that physician-assisted suicide “could come over time to be regarded as cheaper alternatives to medical treatment for the terminally ill, leading to a particular risk of non-voluntary euthanasia when a patient’s socioeconomic disadvantages, uninsured status . . . or mental illness make it impossible for the patient to advocate vigorously for his or her health care.”

Indeed, quoting an amicus brief submitted by a group representing disabled individuals, Not Yet Dead, the Court warned that legalizing “physician assisted suicide would convey a societal value judgment that such ‘indignities’ as physical vulnerability and dependence mean that life no longer has any intrinsic value.” Finally, the Court pointed out that in the Netherlands laws permitting physician-assisted suicide have led down a slippery slope, where euthanasia is being performed on children and where a “proposed law would essentially allow people who are tired of life to end their lives.”

Although some media reports portray the court’s conclusion as unanimous, that is not exactly true. Judge Jenny Rivera, though agreeing that patients may not demand an unlimited access to physician-assisted suicide, held that New York’s Constitution would allow a “patient in the last painful state of life to achieve a peaceful death as the end draws near,” and that the statue’s absolute ban on physician assisted-suicide is indeed unconstitutional. Rivera did not offer much guidance regarding the degree of pain that a patient must be suffering in order to allow for that patient to be entitled to physician-assisted suicide.

In light of the societal implications of the Court’s decision, many highly-respected and politically-powerful organizations submitted “friend of the court” briefs to the Court. For example, Agudath Israel of America and the New York State Catholic Conference submitted briefs in support of the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide (in support of the Judeo-Christian notion of respecting life), while the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys submitted briefs against the constitutionality of the law.

In other states – Oregon, Washington, California, and Vermont and the District of Columbia – which have laws expressly permitting physician-assisted suicide, hospitals have been reportedly sued for failing to administer assisted-suicide. The Court’s decision – which is only binding in New York – would allow Orthodox-Jewish doctors to continue practicing their profession without fear that they could be sued for failing to assist in patient’s suicide.

From a Torah viewpoint, which holds as paramount the value of any human life, there is little doubt that doctors should not be permitted to proactively kill any of their patients. This is especially true in light of the fact that, as the court noted, once doctors are allowed to assist in their patients’ suicide, there’s the grave danger that doctors will unilaterally coerce their patients to commit suicide.

Joey Aron is the founder of Aron Law PLLC. Aron Law PLLC is a boutique firm located in Boro Park, practicing primarily in the areas of employment law and discrimination. Contact information is available at www.boroparklaw.com




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