N.Y. Ban on Aid to Suicides Overruled: Patients' Rights Are Cited in Ruling

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Ban on Aid to Suicides Overruled: Patients' Rights Are Cited in Ruling


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


A federal appeals court yesterday struck down two New York laws that barred doctors from helping terminally ill patients kill themselves, ruling that such laws violate patients' constitutional rights.

"Physicians do not fulfill the role of `killer' by prescribing drugs to hasten death any more than they do by disconnecting life-support systems," a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided unanimously in reversing a 1994 District Court ruling.

In a 36-page ruling, the court said states may define conditions under which a doctor assists in suicide by a mentally competent patient, but it said banning all physician help in suicides "is not rationally related to any legitimate state interest."

The decision closely parallels one handed down four weeks ago by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case from the state of Washington, although the courts differ on the exact constitutional right implicated in such deaths.

Kathryn L. Tucker, lead counsel in both cases for an organization called Compassion in Dying and other plaintiffs, said: "It's very important, because what you have now are federal appeals rulings that laws banning physicians from assisting persons seeking assisted suicide are unconstitutional.

"That covers all 12 states in those two circuits, including New York and California, and sends a pretty clear message to other states among the 30 that have similar laws," she said in a telephone interview from Seattle, where she practices in the private law firm of Perkins Coie.

Carla A. Kerr, who also represented three New York doctors, called Tuesday's ruling "a tremendous victory for people who desire the right to die with dignity."

"Obviously, we're ecstatic," she said.

There was no ecstasy for opponents of laws permitting physicians to go beyond withholding heroic measures.

"The 2nd Circuit opinion, from what I gather, is the natural extension of Roe vs. Wade, that the whole regard for human life is almost reduced to a nullity," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), who made a point of saying he phoned from his mother's hospital bedside.

"My mother has cancer right now. She's in pain. But she's not going to play God," said Mr. Sekulow, who represented the Anti-Euthanasia Task Force in the 1990 Supreme Court case upholding Missouri's right not to allow Nancy Beth Cruzan's family to withhold nutrition. …

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