New York’s highest court upheld the state’s ban on assisted suicide Thursday, in what Catholic leaders have called an important pro-life victory for the state. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Sept. 7 to uphold the state’s law which bans physicians from providing life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.
Catholic leaders welcomed the decision, noting it was in part the result of the combined work of the Church together with numerous other advocacy groups which oppose assisted suicide.
The written decision was “very strong, they shot this down from all angles,” Kathleen Gallagher with the New York State Catholic Conference told CNA. “Unanimously the court judges have said very clearly there are rational, legitimate reasons for New York’s ban on assisted suicide, and then they list them,” she said. “Prevention of suicide in general, the ethical integrity of the medical profession, the preservation of life - (they name) all these rational reasons why we have this law in place.”
Edward Mechmann, Director of Public Policy for the Archdiocese of New York, said he was “a little flabbergasted that the court ruled so strongly, and that their opinions were so well done...it will take away some of the momentum from the assisted suicide advocates.” “It was unanimous - all the lower courts were unanimous too - they haven’t gotten a single judge in New York to agree with them,” he told CNA. “We don’t win too many pro-life victories in New York, so this is really very good for us.”
While the idea of legalized assisted suicide has gained momentum in several states in the past few years, this decision is significant because it “shows that it’s not inevitable that this is going to happen,” Mechmann added. Assisted suicide is currently legal in Colorado, Vermont, Washington, California, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. The State Supreme Court of Montana decriminalized assisted suicide for physicians in 2009.
The plaintiffs in the case included three terminally ill people, two of whom have since died, some physicians who said that they have been approached by patients requesting life-ending drugs, and advocacy group End of Life Choices. They argued that mentally competent, terminally ill patients have a right to “medical aid-in-dying” and that it should legally be recognized as a medical treatment rather than as suicide.
In their decision, the court said that while they upheld a patient’s right to deny extraordinary medical treatment to prolong their lives, they rejected the claim that “aid-in-dying” is different than suicide. “Aid-in-dying falls squarely within the ordinary meaning of the statutory prohibition on assisting a suicide,’’ the decision stated. “The assisted suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions.’’
Together with the Archdiocese of New York, the New York State Catholic Conference had filed an amicus brief with the court, explaining the Church’s reasons for opposing assisted suicide. They also contacted 40 physicians who filed their own briefs with the court, arguing as physicians that legalized assisted suicide would corrupt the practice of medicine. “We felt that was really important to get the medical community on record” opposing assisted suicide, Gallagher said.
Since the highly-publicized assisted suicide case of Brittany Maynard in 2014, which ignited a global push for legalized assisted suicide, Gallagher said the Catholic Conference has been preparing to oppose such measures in New York. The conference has partnered with numerous other groups, including physicians, disability groups, hospice groups and patients rights advocacy groups, who all oppose assisted suicide for various reasons. “We’ve worked hard with other organizations to fight this so that it wouldn’t just be the Catholic Church, and it has worked really well,” she said.
Together, these organizations formed the advocacy group New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, whose collaboration on legal and educational projects continues to strengthen and grow, Gallagher said. “The Church speaks from its moral teachings, but that’s not always persuasive in the legislative arena, (so it’s) extremely helpful to have these other voices.”
But the fight is far from over. Both Gallagher and Mechmann said they anticipate that advocacy groups will continue to push legalized assisted suicide in the upcoming legislative sessions. To that end, Gallagher and Mechmann said much more needs to be done when it comes to raising awareness of and providing education on the issue and among Catholics.
One of the biggest misconceptions about assisted suicide, Mechmann said, is that most people think it is about alleviating the physical suffering of the dying, when in reality, most pain can be managed with palliative care. Most people who choose assisted suicide cite a feeling of a loss of meaning, and the desire to not be a burden on loved ones. The solution to this suffering is not death, Mechmann noted, but the support of friends and family.
“It’s really what the Holy Father talks about when he talks about accompaniment — we need to assure people that their family and their community and their parish will stand with them and walk with them when the end of life approaches,” he said. “It’s a real challenge to us lay people as Catholics, we really have to step up and make sure that our family and friends know that we’ll be with them, that’s ultimately the solution.”
He added that the archdiocese has put together educational forums on the issue, including legal analysis and explanations of assisted suicide as well as real-life stories from the terminally ill who have rejected assisted suicide, or people who have experienced a good death of a loved one. “We try to tell people the other side of the story, which is the people who have had good and holy deaths, and how beautiful and what a moment of grace that is for family members,” he said. “That’s a message that resonates with people.”
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