First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Leaders Laud Unanimous State Court Ruling Against Assisted Suicide
By CHRISTIE L. CHICOINE

Pro-life advocates are praising a unanimous New York State Court ruling that the state’s law prohibiting assisted suicide applies to all and, as such, the procedure is not a constitutional right.

“This is so significant a victory for the cause of life here in the state,” said Ed Mechmann, director of public policy for the archdiocese, about the Sept. 7 ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals.

“The fact that it was a unanimous decision by the court is also just a really hopeful sign that the dangers of assisted suicide are clear and apparent to people when they look seriously at the issue. We’re obviously very gratified by the decision.”

In an 81-page decision in the case, Myers v. Schneiderman, the court said state law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide stems from “legitimate government interests” to protect human life.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was the principal defendant in the case.

The court ruled 5-0—with two judges not participating in the case—that there is a distinction between a patient refusing life-sustaining treatment, which is allowed under state law, and a physician working to hasten the death of a mentally competent patient wishing to end their life because of a terminal illness.

The judges said that the plaintiffs in the case could best address their arguments to the state legislature.

The case was filed in 2015 by three terminally ill patients and doctors who care for them. It was filed to prevent state prosecutors from filing criminal charges against physicians providing mentally competent, rapidly deteriorating patients with drugs to assist in their suicides.

The plaintiffs did not claim that any New York doctor was prosecuted for assisted suicide, but they filed the case to seek a ruling to clarify that state law against the practice was not meant to apply to trained doctors providing aid in dying to terminally ill patients who had given their approval.

Since the filing, the ruling said, two of the plaintiffs have died and the third is in remission from cancer.

Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, said in a statement, “We are pleased and grateful for today’s unanimous Court of Appeals ruling…The Court has wisely determined that New York’s law prohibiting assisted suicide applies to everyone, including those physicians who may wish to assist in their patients’ deaths. ‘There are no exceptions, and the statutes are unqualified in scope…,’ the Court said.

“Moreover, the Court ruled that there is an important and logical distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and actively assisting in suicide,” she said, adding, “a distinction our Catholic tradition has always recognized.”

The decision is a significant victory for those who would be most at risk of abuse and most susceptible to pressure to take their own lives, “including the isolated elderly, persons with disabilities, and those who are depressed and overcome with hopelessness,” Ms. Gallagher said.

In that regard, Mechmann said, “This really affirms our interests and our duty to protect them.”

Disabilities rights groups “are the strongest advocates against assisted suicide,” he added. “A victory like this has got to be so heartening for the disabled community because it’s an affirmation that their lives are worth protecting and their lives are worth living.”

The answer to those feelings of hopelessness and sadness and a lack of usefulness comes from a society that is very consumeristic and utilitarian, Mechmann said. “It sends negative messages to all of us that we’re only valuable if we are contributing or working or producing.

“The Christian message,” Mechmann said, “is so different from that: every person is made in the image and likeness of God. Every moment of our lives is a grace from God. We can always be doing something that can be of service to others because that’s real love.

“Even people who are in the most compromised situations,” such as those who suffer from chronic illnesses, can offer up their suffering in prayer for others in need. “The prayers of people who are ‘weak’ in the eyes of the world, those prayers are so powerful,” Mechmann said.

He underscored the difference between assisted suicide and a decision at the end of life to decline a treatment of extraordinary or disproportionate means that would impose unreasonable burdens. “The difference in intentionality is so important.”

Ms. Gallagher said, “Twenty years ago, in Vacco vs. Quill, the United States Supreme Court declared that physician-assisted suicide is not a constitutional right and, with this decision, the New York State Court of Appeals agrees.”

Mechmann wrote a friend of the court brief for the New York State Catholic Conference and was aided in that work by his assistant and colleague, Alexis Carra, he said. Briefs were filed at the appellate division in January 2016 and at the Court of Appeals this past January, he said.

“We don’t win many victories on the pro-life front here in New York. This is something to celebrate—that the truth about assisted suicide was seen so clearly by the Court of Appeals and also by the lower courts.

“Every judge who considered this issue ruled against legalizing assisted suicide. It was unanimous from top to bottom.”

—Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

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