by Jack Long
On September 7, the New York Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a constitutional right to aid-in-dying does not exist in Sara Myers v. Schneiderman, a dispute between the End of Life Choices advocacy group and the Attorney General of New York. End of Life Choices sued on behalf of three patients who wanted assistance from medical professionals in committing suicide. Following Penal Law § 120.30, Attorney General Schneiderman would have been required to prosecute any such action; therefore, the patients became plaintiffs and the case made it all the way to the State Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs had two arguments for a Constitutional “right to die.” First, that Equal Protection necessitated that if patients could have aid withdrawn to accelerate dying, then the State must have aid provided to accelerate dying. Second, the plaintiffs argued through due process that their right to freedom superseded the government’s self-interest in these cases. The Court found both these arguments lacking considering how New York State has “consistently adopted the well-established distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and assisted suicide.”
This “well-established distinction” does not exist in the District of Columbia and in six states (Oregon, Vermont, Washington, California, Colorado, and Montana), where assisted suicide is legal. Motions such as the one in Sara Myers v. Schneiderman were inspired by the example of these states, leading to proposed legislation like New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act for 2017 and the formation of groups like End of Life Choices, whose mission is to allow the terminally ill “to achieve a peaceful death if confronted by suffering they find unbearable.” That group released a statement eleven days after the Court’s decision, criticizing it on their website. The three physically ill plaintiffs failed to respond, mostly because two of them had died before the end of the proceedings.
While the pro-assisted suicide group lamented the verdict, the New York State Catholic Conference hailed the decision in its “Statement on Court of Appeals decision in assisted suicide case.” In addition to affirming the Catholic distinction between stopping aid and aiding in death, the public branch of the Bishops also said, “The decision is a significant victory for those who would be most at risk of abuse and most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, including the isolated elderly, persons with disabilities, and those who are depressed and overcome with hopelessness.”
In addition to the majority opinion, three of the Justices wrote concurring opinions to emphasize specific aspects of the rulings. Of the three, Judge Rivera’s was the longest and admitted the strength of the plaintiff’s due process argument while making it clear that “this conclusion does not support the State's position that its interests are always superior to and outweigh the rights of the terminally ill.” Judge Fahey was far less sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ arguments for assisted suicide, as best summarized in his statement that “experience teaches us that arguably benign policies can lead to unanticipated results.” Continuing this trend, Judge Garcia explicitly wrote his opinion to deny the plaintiff’s argument that posed a legitimate challenge to existing assisted suicide legislation. These opinions, along with the majority, can be read from nycourts.gov.