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Assisted-Suicide Salvo by Terminally Ill New Yorkers

(CN) - Hoping for a "peaceful death," three terminally ill patients want a New York judge to clarify whether their doctors may legally help them end their own lives.

Sara Myers, Steve Goldenberg and Eric Seiff filed the complaint in Manhattan Supreme Court on Wednesday with their doctors and End of Life Choices New York. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and five county prosecutors are named as defendants.

Myers, Goldenberg, and Seiff are terminally ill patients, and want a court order protecting their doctors from criminal prosecution if they give them "aid in dying."

"It is unclear under New York law whether terminally-ill, mentally-competent New Yorkers who wish to exercise control, avoid a perceived loss of dignity and reduce suffering they find unbearable as they approach death due to terminal illness may obtain a prescription from their physicians for medication they could ingest to achieve a peaceful death - a practice known as aid-in-dying," the complaint states.

New York's assisted-suicide law criminalizes the actions of anyone who "intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide."

Myers, 60, has Lou Gehrig's disease, and has lost the ability to walk. "Functionally paralyzed," she says she is slowly losing her ability to speak, and to breathe.

"Sara feels trapped in a torture chamber of her own deteriorating body," the complaint says. "Sara wishes not to have to endure a horrible, slow death that would, in her considered judgment, deprive her of the integrity and dignity she has left."

Goldenberg, 55, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1989, and the disease has progressed to AIDS.

"Steve has fought long and hard to stay alive in the face of progressive and debilitating illness," the complaint states. "He is now dying, and the inexorable progression of his multiple medical conditions impose a great burden of suffering and have robbed him of the ability to engage in activities he has found meaningful in life."

Goldenberg says the morphine he must take for his pain causes him to sleep approximately 19 hours a day. Waking hours are spent taking numerous medications, feeding himself through a tube, and cleaning the breathing tubes Goldenberg requires to survive.

He says he "wishes to have the comfort of knowing that, if and when his suffering becomes unbearable, he can ingest medications prescribed by his doctor to achieve a peaceful death."

Seiff, 81, is a former Manhattan assistant district attorney whose bladder cancer has returned a year after he underwent chemotherapy.

"Although he currently feels healthy and hopes that his medical treatment is successful, Eric wants to be sure that if the cancer progresses to a terminal stage, and he finds himself in a dying process he determines to be unbearable, he has available to him the option of aid-in-dying," the complaint states.

Seiff says he watched his mother "endure a protracted and excruciating dying process from terminal illness at an early age," and does not want his family to watch him go through a painful and protracted death.

The complaint demands clarity as to whether the doctors will face prosecution for assisting their patients die.

"The potential for prosecution under New York's Assisted Suicide Statute for providing aid-in-dying harms the physician plaintiffs in that it impairs their ability to provide adequate and appropriate medical care to their mentally-competent, terminally-ill patients," the complaint states. "It harms the patient plaintiffs in that it impairs their access to an end-of-life option that would bring comfort and a means to avoid horrific suffering."

They argue that the word "suicide" should not be defined to include a choice made by a competent, terminally ill individual for a peaceful death.

Edwin Schallert with Debevoise & Plimpton represents the plaintiffs, with Disability Legal Rights Center attorney Kathryn Tucker in Los Angeles.

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