Earlier this month, the state’s high court issued a written opinion in a New York civil rights case involving the rights of mentally competent, terminally ill patients to seek prescription medication to end their life. Ultimately, the court distinguished between the existing right to withdraw or refuse medical treatment and the plaintiff’s asserted right to affirmatively seek out life-ending medication.
The plaintiffs in the case included three terminally ill patients who wished to end their lives by obtaining a lawful prescription to do so. The plaintiffs also included several physicians who, but for the criminal prohibition of “assisted suicide,” would have prescribed the terminally ill plaintiffs a prescription to end their life.
The case was filed against the New York Attorney General and sought a declaratory judgment clarifying that a physician who wrote a prescription for a life-ending drug would not be prosecuted. Presumably, if the plaintiffs won the lawsuit, and the prohibition against prescribing life-ending medication was lifted, the physician plaintiffs would then be legally permitted to assist in the deaths of the terminally ill patients.
The plaintiffs claimed that the law prohibiting physicians from prescribing such medication denied them their constitutional rights. Specifically, they claimed that the current law denied them their Due Process and Equal Protection rights. The court quickly disposed of the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claim, noting that under United States Supreme Court case law, “no one is permitted to assist in a suicide.” Since this prohibition applies equally to all, the court determined that there was no Equal Protection violation.
The plaintiff’s Due Process argument claimed that the prohibition against physician-assisted suicide interfered with their “fundamental right to self-determination and to control the course of their medical treatment encompasses the right to choose aid-in-dying.” The plaintiffs likened their request to the long-standing right to refuse medical treatment, even when such refusal would certainly result in death. The court, while sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ cause, made a distinction between withdrawing or refusing medical treatment and affirmatively seeking out medication to end one’s life. The court explained that the right to refuse medical treatment was at least partially rooted in issues of bodily integrity, insofar as it involved preventing “unwanted bodily invasions.”
Applying the relevant legal standard, the court noted that the law only need be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. Here, the court held that the state did have a rational interest in preventing the prescription of lethal medication that could be accidentally or intentionally misused.
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See Additional Blog Posts:
New York Wage and Hour Lawsuit Nets $2M to Pizza Delivery Workers, New York Business Litigation Attorney Blog, May 5, 2015.
College Student: I Was Forced to Prosecute My Rapist Alone, New York Business Litigation Attorney Blog, April 30, 2015.