MANHATTAN (CN) — Two of terminally ill plaintiffs who sued to decriminalize physician-assisted suicide in New York lost painful battles with Lou Gehrig’s disease and AIDS last year.
On Thursday, the lawsuit they pursued up until the end died too.
New York’s Court of Appeals unanimously dismissed the case led by the late Sara Myers, who did not survive her neurodegenerative condition long enough to watch her attorney argue that the state’s criminal laws rob people like her of the dignity to end life on their own terms.
“She died alone in an institution alone and in a stupor,” Debevoise & Plimpton attorney Edwin Schallert had told a six-judge panel in May. “That is what she was trying to avoid.”
Schallert’s impassioned plea did not persuade the five judges who issued today’s ruling.
“Our legislature has a rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide, and plaintiffs have no constitutional right to the relief they seek herein,” the unsigned opinion states.
The court found that any relaxation of New York’s centuries-old prohibitions would have to come from Albany.
“The Legislature may conclude that those dangers can be effectively regulated and specify the conditions under which it will permit aid-in-dying,” the 14-page opinion states. “Indeed, the jurisdictions that have permitted the practice have done so only through considered legislative action … and those courts to have considered this issue with respect to their own state constitutions have rejected similar constitutional arguments.”
In the United States, five states and the nation’s capital have legalized some form of what advocates call “aid in dying”: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado and the District of Columbia.
Though she joined the full court in ruling against legalization, Judge Jenny Rivera penned a concurring opinion Thursday sympathizing with those who seek a doctor’s help.
“The dying process, candidly recounted, illustrates the struggle of the terminally ill to live and die on their own terms, and is a vivid reminder of the fragility of human existence,” the 28-page concurrence states. “It also provides necessary context for the legal analysis.”
Myers testified to feeling trapped in a “torture chamber of her own deteriorating body,” while her co-plaintiff Steve Goldenberg had been bedridden 19 hours a day on a regimen of 24 AIDS medications and morphine, according to their lawsuit.
Eric Seiff, a former Manhattan prosecutor and the third co-plaintiff, was battling bladder cancer when they sued. Though his cancer is now in remission, Seiff still wants aid in dying as an option, should his health take another turn for the worse.
“These patient-plaintiffs expressed a desire for more than pain management; they sought to maintain a sense of dignity, autonomy, and personal integrity in the face of death, which they claimed had been compromised by both their respective illnesses and by the state’s prohibition on assisted suicide,” Rivera noted.
The American Medical Student Association, American Medical Women’s Association and American College of Legal Medicine were among a group of medical organizations that filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Myers, Goldenberg and Seiff’s challenge.
So did the New York Civil Liberties Union, whose director Donna Lieberman called for legislative action.
“No one who is coping with a terminal illness should be forced to endure needless suffering or be denied a death with dignity,” Lieberman said in a statement. “We must now demand enlightened and compassionate legislation from our representatives in Albany, one that honors and respects the wishes of our fellow New Yorkers during the most trying time of their lives.”
Barring legislative change, a practice known as palliative sedation is the maximum relief allowed under New York law, allowing a patient to die by turning off ventilators, removing breathing tubes and stopping life-sustaining treatment while administering pain-relief drugs.
Rivera called the line between the status quo and aid in dying arbitrary and illusory.
“If terminally ill patients may exercise their liberty interest by choosing to be terminally sedated, the state has no compelling rationale, or even a rational interest, in refusing a mentally competent, terminally ill patient who is in the final stage of life the choice of a less intrusive option — access to aid-in-dying — which may better comport with the patient’s autonomy and dignity,” she wrote.
Judge Michael Garcia emphasized the crucial distinction between the two in yet another concurring opinion.
“When a patient refuses life-sustaining treatment and succumbs to illness, the cause of death is the underlying disease,” Garcia wrote. “By contrast, when a lethal medication is ingested, the cause of death is not the pre-existing illness, but rather, the prescribed medication.”
Judge Eugene Fahey meanwhile warned of the proverbial “slippery slope,” should New York legislators liberalize its laws.
Pointing to the Dutch example, Fahey noted that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide accounted for 5,516 deaths in the Netherlands — almost 4 percent of all deaths in the nation — in 2015.
The country’s extremely permissive laws allow for children to request assisted suicide with their parents’ permission at the age of 12, and without starting at 16 — an age that certain Dutch pediatricians have advocated lowering.
“The Netherlands has displayed another very disturbing trend: the countenancing of both voluntary euthanasia and nonvoluntary euthanasia,” Fahey wrote in a 22-page opinion.
“A study conducted in 2005 revealed that 2410 people in the Netherlands, 1.8 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands that year, died as a result of voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, while 0.4 percent of all deaths, or some 560 people, died as ‘the result of the use of lethal drugs not at the explicit request of the patient,’” Fahey added.
This was the fear of the disabilities-rights group Not Dead Yet, which argued that the U.S. for-profit medical system could create a perverse incentive to kill rather than provide expensive treatment.
Their hypothetical concern did not pan out in Oregon, where 20 years have passed since legalization in 1997.
Finding that Oregon’s most vulnerable people were not uniquely at risk for coerced suicide, The New York Times reported that more than 97 percent of the states patients who ended their lives by taking a lethal dose of medication were white and more than 98 percent had health insurance.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Myers’ attorney Schallert did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Judges Leslie Stein and Rowan Wilson also joined the unanimous ruling but did not pen separate opinions.