In a unanimous opinion issued yesterday afternoon, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in the Morris v. Brandenburg case that there is no state constitutional right to assisted suicide.
Not Dead Yet was assisted by disability rights attorney Steve Gold and New Mexico counsel Lara Katz in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. Joining Not Dead Yet in the brief were ADAPT, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, the National Council on Independent Living and United Spinal Association, collectively referred to as the “Disability Amici.”
“Our basic position is that when some people get suicide prevention while other people get suicide assistance, and the difference is the person’s age, disability or health status, that’s a problem,” said Not Dead Yet’s president and CEO, Diane Coleman. “It’s a problem of devaluation of people who are being told that others not only agree with their suicide, which is bad enough, but will even help them carry it out. It’s a deadly form of discrimination and, as our brief says, it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The Supreme Court outlined the reasoning in its 58-page opinion as follows:
“[T]he State has legitimate interests in (1) protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession; (2) protecting vulnerable groups—including the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons—from the risk of subtle coercion and undue influence in end-of-life situations, including pressures associated with the substantial financial burden of end-of-life health care costs; and (3) protecting against voluntary or involuntary euthanasia because if physician aid in dying is a constitution alright, it must be made available to everyone, even when a duly appointed surrogate makes the decision, and even when the patient is unable to self-administer the life-ending medication.”
The latter concern is rarely discussed, but is an important consideration in dealing with constitutional rights. So far, consistent with the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Washington v.Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill, no state has found a constitutional right to assisted suicide, and New Mexico now joins several other states, including Florida, Montana, Connecticut, California and New York in declining to do so.
Each of the national disability organizations that joined in Not Dead Yet’s friend-of-the-court brief brought a specific perspective to the high court’s attention. For example, the primary mission of ADAPT is to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities are not forced into nursing facilities, but have the choice to receive consumer directed long term care services in their own home. “If the only alternative to death that those in power offer people who require assistance is poverty and segregation in nursing facilities, then it makes no sense to talk about assisted suicide as a ‘choice’”, said Bruce Darling, an ADAPT organizer based in Rochester, New York.
Many people with disabilities acquire them as a result of accidents or trauma, and their prognosis is often uncertain in the early stages. “If assisted suicide had been legal in the past, even if it were supposedly only for those with ‘terminal’ conditions, many of us would not be here today,” said Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. “I might not be here today, and I’m grateful that assisted suicide was not legal back then, and I’m committed to keeping it that way.”
The brief also expressed concerns about the context of health care cost-cutting in which assisted suicide is being advocated. “In an aging society where elder and disability abuse is a growing problem, elders too often face economic or other pressures to get out of the way, whether those pressures come from the health care system or, sadly, from family,” Coleman said.
A free subscription to the Not Dead Yet blog is available online.