A Welcome Setback for Assisted Suicide in New York

Last Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, dismissed a case filed by three terminally ill patients who sought a court order protecting their doctors if they prescribed a lethal dose of medication to help them die.

The plaintiffs asserted that statutes like New York’s that ban assisted suicide — it is currently a felony in New York to help a person end his life — should be understood as excluding physicians who provide patients with the means to take their own lives.

“Such a reading,” however, the decision rendered, “would run counter to our fundamental tenets of statutory construction, and would require that we read into the statutes words and meaning wholly absent from their text.”

The ruling is a welcome one, as it helps protect those who are most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, like the elderly, the depressed and the disabled.

A number of other state high courts have similarly rejected state constitutional claims to a right to help others take their lives. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg decision, rejected an attempt to read such a right into the U.S. Constitution.

Five states, however — Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, Montana and Washington — have enacted legislation to permit physician-assisted suicide. There have been repeated attempts in the New York legislature to enact a law to allow the practice. Thus far, all have failed.

Proponents of such laws sometimes insinuate that patients are currently without the right to refuse treatments aimed at prolonging their lives, but that is not true. Laws forbidding doctors from prescribing drugs that will kill their patients do not in any way limit a patient’s autonomy to opt to undergo or forgo treatments.

The New York judges wrote as much in their decision, stating that declining medical treatment is “an action that a competent adult can legally take.” But, they added, actual “aid in dying involves a doctor prescribing lethal drugs to directly cause a patient’s death,” which constitutes “an illegal act that would expose a doctor to criminal prosecution, possibly for murder.”

Heartening as the recent New York decision is, the effort to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in the state will not halt as a result. Proponents of the practice are encouraged by the examples of the states where it has been legalized, as well as by other countries that have embraced it.

In Switzerland, for instance, the organization Dignitas can arrange for a patient to be dead within a week. In the Netherlands, while a 15-year-old needs parental consent to enlist a doctor’s help in killing himself, if he waits until he’s 16, he need only “involve” his parents in his decision, but not receive their approval. And emotional pain is sufficient legal justification to assist in a suicide. What is more, if a Dutch doctor chooses to “terminally sedate” patients in pain without the consent of the patient or family members, “it doesn’t need to be reported.”

It is also legal in Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Germany, Japan and Canada.

In addition to the actual heinous act of helping someone commit murder, and real concerns about encouraging and even pressuring patients into taking their lives, there is also the possibility, or even likelihood, that it will embolden people to act as “angels of mercy” and kill incapacitated patients without even any degree of consent, for the patients’ “own benefit.”

Mere months ago, Canadian nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer, the latest in a long, shocking stream of health-care personnel in North America and Europe who ended incapacitated people’s lives, was sentenced to life in prison for poisoning eight patients in her care. She didn’t mount a defense, so her motives cannot be known. But it is not inconceivable that she saw herself as “helping” her patients by killing them.

Another attitudinal ill born of legalized assisted suicide is the concept of “quality of life.” Some lives are assumed to be less valuable, less purposeful, and thus less worthy of society’s protection, than others.

The elderly and ill are increasing in number. Modern medicine has increased longevity. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, Divine gift than… a commodity.

Such attitudes and realities all but ensure that proponents of physician-assisted suicide in New York will, in the wake of their recent setback, redouble their efforts to lobby for legislation to accomplish what they could not accomplish in the state’s courts.

We, in turn, must redouble our own efforts to make our legislators know that, no matter in what terms it is couched, playing a role in causing people’s deaths is an unspeakable crime.