It’s Time to Reinvigorate the Constitutional Claim for Physician Assistance in Dying

by  Norman L. Cantor

Since 1997, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected federal constitutional challenges to New York and Washington prohibitions of assistance to suicide, the notion that a dying patient might have a constitutional right to obtain a lethal prescription has gotten short shrift.  Even when the dying patient’s claim for physician assistance in dying (PAD) has relied on state constitutional provisions, no state supreme court has ruled that state liberty or equal protection guarantees so benefit a competent, terminally ill medical patient.  See T.M. Pope, Legal History of Medical Aid in Dying: Physician Assisted Death in U.S. Courts and Legislatures,   N. Mex. L. Rev.  (2018). At least 5 state highest courts have rejected such claims.  Yet developments and insights emerging over the last 21 years in death and dying jurisprudence provide reason to reinvigorate constitutional challenges to state prohibitions on a physician’s providing a lethal substance to a competent, fatally stricken medical patient.

The first Achilles heel in current legal doctrine relates to the “liberty” concept invoked by fatally stricken claimants.   When Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the patients’ liberty claim in Washington v. Glucksberg, he labeled it as seeking a “right to suicide.”  That over-simplistic formulation of the constitutional claim presaged its failure.  Of course the guides to fundamental liberty, i.e., the traditions and collective conscience of the people, do not encompass “suicide.”  Suicide, broadly viewed as a choice to “prematurely cut short a viable life, usually for reasons of a transient nature and often involving depression,” has always been disdained and discouraged.  Pope, supra, at 29.  Law has customarily allowed physical intervention to prevent suicide, and has criminally punished assistance to suicide.

Rehnquist, though, was unfairly characterizing the liberty claim of dying patients.  Those dying patients in Glucksberg were not advancing a broad prerogative to terminate a life deemed unbearably unhappy.  Rather, they were asserting a fatally stricken person’s interest in medical management of the dying process and in control of the timing of an unavoidable, lurking death.  Only in the 20th century, with development of modern medical tools, did this issue really emerge.  Only then did a fatally stricken patient incur risk of a protracted dying process with accompanying suffering or degradation.  The 21st century is witnessing an expanded incidence of medically mediated death, a phenomenon warranting renewed focus on end-of-life self-determination.

The 21st century is also witnessing development in another measure of fundamental liberty – the collective conscience of the people.  Polls in 2017 show that 67% of Americans now support the concept of physician-assisted death.  Public sentiment may not be a determinative factor, but it is relevant in shaping the meaning of fundamental liberty.  Also relevant are developments in legalization of PAD as in California, Colorado, New Hampshire, Montana, and the District of Columbia. In short, a basis exists for refining and resubmitting the constitutional claim that self-determination in management of a looming, unavoidable dying process should be deemed a fundamental aspect of liberty.  Continue reading

New York’s Highest Court Summarily Rejects a Constitutional Challenge to New York’s Ban on Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Norman L. Cantor

Justice Cardozo, the legendary jurist from New York, would turn over in his grave upon reading the New York Court of Appeals’ per curiam (unsigned) opinion in Myers v. Schneiderman, 2017 WL 3897181 (9/17/17).  The lawsuit was filed by several terminally ill patients (and physicians serving such patients) challenging New York’s ban on physician assistance to a competent, terminally ill medical patient seeking a lethal prescription.  The deficiency that would upset Cardozo was not so much the Court’s conclusion that application of assisted suicide laws to a dying patient does not violate constitutional rights of liberty and equal protection, but rather the Court’s perfunctory, over-simplified handling of the constitutional issues.

The most plausible constitutional challenge in this context is equal protection – a claim that states act arbitrarily in allowing terminal patients certain means of hastening a grueling dying process (rejection of life-sustaining medical intervention, use of risky analgesics or sedatives to relieve suffering, and voluntarily stopping of eating and drinking (VSED)) while banning a physician’s provision of a more expeditious means of hastening death – a lethal medication.   The per curiam opinion’s dismissive response to this equal protection claim was that New York’s laws don’t differentiate among persons.   From the Court’s perspective, every competent patient is entitled to reject medical intervention and every person is forbidden to assist a suicide.  There are no invidious “discriminations” present.  This myopic formulation of the equal protection issue ducks the complex distinctions made by state laws in the context of dying medical patients.

The issue of controlling the time and manner of death derives from medical science’s newfound (mid-20th century) capacity to prolong a fatally stricken patient’s dying process – sometimes beyond the patient’s tolerance for suffering or indignity.  Patient choice and some medical management of the dying process became an accepted norm in confronting irremediably fatal pathology.   The initial accepted means of controlling the timing of unavoidable death was through patients’ control of life-sustaining medical intervention  (including chemotherapy, respirators, dialysis, or artificial nutrition and hydration).  A competent patient’s prerogative to reject medical life support has been recognized as a basic legal right in every jurisdiction.  Continue reading

California the latest to pass a Death with Dignity law, 5th in US

Medical personnel are trained to “first do no harm.” In end-of-life treatment, that simple directive can be difficult to interpret, and the legal landscape has evolved in the United States over the past 25 years. In 1990, the US Supreme Court ruled that physicians and other health care providers could withhold medical treatment at the direction of a patient or the patient’s directed agent.

Most recently, a movement to provide patients’ help in dying has been termed “death with dignity” and “assisted suicide.” Federal law does not currently address euthanasia or “mercy killings” in terminal patients who seek a physician’s aid to end their own suffering. Rather, the patient’s right to obtain a physician’s or other health care provider’s help to end their life is established by state law. Continue reading