ALBANY, N.Y. — Could “Aid in Dying” be legal under a ban on “Physician-Assisted Suicide”?

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, considered this argument presented by advocates of assisted suicide and answered in a resounding 5-0 decision that surprised even opponents: No.

The court upheld a lower court’s ruling and affirmed that the state’s constitution and laws did not permit “aid in dying,” because the act of a doctor helping people kill themselves with lethal medication still fits “the ordinary meaning of the statutory prohibition on assisting a suicide.”

“The assisted-suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions,” Judge Jenny Rivera wrote in the lead decision.

Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities at the New York Catholic Conference, told the Register that she had not anticipated the decision, which affirmed lawmakers have a “rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide.”

She said the next phase of the battle would move into the New York Legislature. Lawmakers in both the state assembly and senate have sponsored assisted-suicide bills, A.B. 2383 and S.B. 3151, but neither have proceeded far. Gallagher said the conference, and its partners in the New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, which includes the Medical Society of the State of New York, would remain vigilant when the legislative session resumes in January.

Pro-assisted-suicide groups signaled that they would be refocusing on the legislative path.

“While we were supportive of the plaintiffs in this case, now we urge the legislature and Gov. Cuomo to honor the wishes of more than three-quarters of their constituents by enacting a law in 2018 authorizing medical aid in dying as an option for terminally ill adults to end unbearable suffering,” said Corinne Carey, the New York state campaign director for the pro-assisted-suicide lobby Compassion & Choices, in a statement.

Carey pointed to a 2015 poll commissioned by her organization of 1,000 registered voters that found 63% of Catholics supported “the option to request a prescription for life-ending medication from their doctor and decide whether and when to use that medication to end their suffering in their final stages of dying.”

Gallagher said that the Church needs to “redouble our efforts with Catholics in the pews” to educate them that assisted suicide is against Church teaching because it goes against the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. The state’s Catholic conference, she added, is trying to facilitate an educational push across the state at the parish level, pointing out the positive alternatives to assisted suicide based on Catholic teaching, instead of just taking a negative stance.

“This is what Pope Francis has been begging us to do,” she said.

Gallagher said the Church is trying to educate people that individuals in pain need “aid in living” — more access to palliative care and hospice care — instead of “aid in dying.” People facing their final days, she said, need the kind of personal accompaniment where they can be assured they “are still loved and not a burden.”

 

Overview of Legislation

Jennifer Popik, director of the Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics at the National Right to Life Committee, told the Register the battle over assisted suicide has been fought primarily in state legislatures over the years. However, the 2017 legislative year overall was a quiet year regarding the topic of assisted suicide.

“There have been no enactments this year and just a handful of public hearings,” Popik said. She added that the New York case was high on the radar of assisted-suicide advocates, but now that path has closed, she expects they will redouble their efforts on the legislative path.

In terms of pushing back against assisted suicide, Popik said Congress has added an amendment to an appropriations bill that would nullify the assisted-suicide law passed by the D.C. Council.

“Whether that survives to the end remains to be seen,” she added.

The fight against assisted suicide depends on a coalition of groups that have joined forces across political and ideological lines.

Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said assisted suicide can be stopped in even liberal states, such as Connecticut, because of this alliance. Particularly pivotal, he said, has been the involvement of disability-rights groups that are giving a human face to the potential victims of assisted-suicide laws.

“We’re all united around the concept of [fighting] assisted suicide,” he said.

Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, told the Register that assisted-suicide legalization is a “race to the bottom for quality health care.” She said the case of Stephanie Packer — whose insurance provider decided it would no longer cover her chemotherapy treatments, but would cover lethal pills shortly after California legalized physician-assisted suicide — shows the “phony choice” at work.

“If your insurer won’t cover the health care your doctor feels you need, what kind of a choice is that?”

Golden said the lives of people with disabilities are already “very devalued by society.” Disability and terminal illness often get conflated, especially in the medical community, where people with disabilities suffer from the prejudice that they cannot live a full and fulfilling life and death is somehow preferable.

She said people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to assisted-suicide laws, such as if an heir or abusive caregiver wanted them out of the way.

 

Remaining Vigilant

Opponents of assisted suicide are determined to remain vigilant. Wolfgang, however, added that it was imperative that opponents of assisted suicide not get “trapped in a culture-war narrative.”

Such an approach, he said, would only benefit assisted-suicide proponents, who would love to divide-and-conquer the anti-assisted-suicide coalition.

Wolfgang added that if assisted suicide were allowed a legal foothold in a state, proponents would continue to incrementally open the door to involuntary euthanasia — the reality now in the Netherlands. He pointed out that the pattern can be seen beginning to repeat itself in Oregon, where a lawmaker has proposed expanding legal assisted suicide to cover people who have a terminal diagnosis of less than a year to live, up from the current six-months-to-live prognosis.

“We’d be foolish to rest on the success of this year,” added Popik, pointing out that advocates for permissive assisted-suicide laws can now count six U.S. states and the District of Columbia where medical-assisted suicide is permitted.

“They’re very dedicated, and they’re well-funded,” Popik said. “They’re not going to go away anytime soon.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.