By Christopher White, National Correspondent
New York’s highest appeals court has unanimously ruled that the state’s ban on physician-assisted suicide is constitutional, granting a major victory to opponents of the practice.
Three terminally ill patients had challenged the state law claiming they should have the right to a doctor’s assistance in ending their own lives. Two of the three plaintiffs that originally filed suit have since died.
“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,” the court ruled in Myers v Schneiderman.
“We also reject plaintiffs’ assertion that the State’s prohibition on assisted suicide is not rationally related to legitimate state interests…the State also has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem,” according to the decision.
In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled that there was no constitutional right to assisted suicide. Five states, along with the District of Columbia, have fully legalized the practice and approximately 25 percent of the population of the United States resides in areas where it is legal.
The Catholic Church opposes physician-assisted suicide.
The Catechism teaches that to assist anyone in a suicide is “an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested.” In 2011, the United States Catholic Bishops Conference released a pastoral statement, “To Live Each Day with Dignity,” describing assisted suicide as a “renewed threat to human dignity.”
Kathleen Gallagher of the New York State Catholic Conference praised the court’s decision.
“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,” said Gallagher in a statement.
J.J. Hanson, president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, said the ruling was on the side of “truth and compassion.”
Hanson was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014 and was originally told by doctors that he only had six months to live. He has since dedicated his life to fighting against physician-assisted suicide, as he believes it undermines patient care and makes them more vulnerable.
“Laws that prohibit assisted suicide actually protect people with terminal illness, people with depression, people with disabilities, the elderly and others,” he said in his statement.
“When assisted suicide, the cheaper option, becomes legal in our profit driven health care system, it costs patients the freedom to choose more expensive life-saving treatments and ultimately, may cost them their lives,” he added.
The Archdiocese of New York’s Public Policy Director Ed Mechmann said the court’s ruling would help in the ongoing efforts in making the case that assisted suicide is bad public policy and bad for public health.
“The decision itself will help to blunt the momentum for legalizing assisted suicide both here in New York and beyond,” said Mechmann.
“But the most important impact may come from the unanimity of the court and its strong endorsement of the significant state interest in keeping our prohibition of assisted suicide,” he said.
“We have been trying to show to the legislators and the public how harmful and dangerous legalization would be. The Court’s unequivocal support for that argument will definitely help us to make that case,” said Mechmann.
In light of this week’s decision, physician-assisted suicide advocates in the state have vowed to press ahead in their fight.
“We will continue to fight to establish the right to aid in dying in the New York State legislature,” said Laurie Leonard, executive director of the group End of Life Choices New York.
The next legislative session in the state will commence in January 2018.
Editor’s note: The U.S. Bishops’ 2011 statement, “To Live Each Day with Dignity,” may be accessed here.