New York’s highest court has ruled to hear the appeal of Myers v. Schneiderman, the lawsuit End of Life Choices New York initiated to make medical aid in dying available in New York. Previously the case had been dismissed by two lower courts, but the ruling by the Court of Appeals means it can now move forward.
The plaintiffs in Myers v. Schneiderman are End of Life Choices New York, three terminally ill patients, four doctors, and EOLCNY Clinical Director Judith Schwarz. The lawsuit asks the court to find that physicians who provide a prescription for medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient – which the patient could consume to bring about a peaceful death – should not be subject to criminal prosecution under existing law which prohibits assisting another to ‘commit suicide.’ The suit argues that the choice of such a dying patient for a peaceful death is not ‘suicide’ and the physician does not assist such a patient in ‘committing suicide.’
The plaintiffs also assert constitutional claims; New York’s courts have long recognized a fundamental right to self-determination with respect to one’s body and to control the course of one’s medical treatment. The case presents substantial issues under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of New York’s Constitution.
“We are pleased that New York’s highest court recognized the substantial constitutional questions raised by this appeal,” said Edwin G. Schallert, Debevoise & Plimpton, co-counsel to plaintiffs in the case. “We look forward to vindicating the rights of terminally ill patients to choose to avoid unbearable suffering by having the option of aid in dying.”
“The Court of Appeals, in allowing this case to proceed, took a key step forward toward allowing the patients and physicians who brought this case to present compelling facts before the important issues are decided,” said Kathryn L. Tucker, Director of the End of Life Liberty Project, and plaintiffs’ co-counsel. “We are optimistic that when the Court is made aware of the suffering facing patients, the profoundly personal reasons motivating their desire to choose a more peaceful death, and the fact that when the option is available, end of life care for all patients improves, with no harm to anyone, it will rule in our favor.”
Laurie Leonard, Executive Director of End of Life Choices New York, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said: “We are very pleased the Court of Appeals has given us the opportunity to move forward with this case. Dying patients in New York should have the right to choose a humane and peaceful death.”
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), prime sponsor of legislation to explicitly make clear that aid in dying is legal in New York, said: “I am pleased that the Court of Appeals has determined that the appeal can move forward. Just as the plaintiffs in this lawsuit argue, I believe that patients facing the end of their lives have a right to make their own decision about their bodies and how they will die. That is why I will continue to work to pass my bill, the Medical Aid in Dying Act, so that mentally competent, terminally ill patients can request medication that the patient can take to bring about a peaceful death at the time and under the circumstances they choose.”
“This case is about patient autonomy and dignity,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried (D-Manhattan), a co-sponsor of the bill to allow aid in dying. “For over a century, New York law has recognized that adults with mental capacity have a constitutional right to refuse life-saving treatment. Similarly, they should have the right to end their suffering through medication if that is their own choice. We are pursuing that right in court and in the Legislature. It is important that the Court of Appeals will hear this case.”
The plaintiffs must submit their brief by November 15, 2016. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, which is defending the state, will have until December 30, 2016 to reply. The plaintiffs then have until January 17, 2017 to submit their reply brief.
Aid in dying is already an available end of life option in Montana, Oregon, Vermont, California and Washington State.