The Rights of a Terminally Ill Patient to End His or Her Own Life

Nassau County estate planning lawyerWhen doctors notify patients of a grave prognosis, they typically do their best to ensure that the patient is as comfortable as possible and lives out the rest of his or her days according to their wishes. Many of those who have suffered from a terminal illness for so long welcome death, and, sometimes, even wish to speed up the process with life-ending medication. This practice is controversial in that some view it as murder, or going against nature, while others believe it to be showing mercy by ending the patient’s suffering.

There are three broad categories related to end-of-life decisions, including euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a way of taking someone’s life to spare them suffering and is prohibited in all fifty states. Euthanasia occurs when a doctor or other person administers life-ending medication and physically injects the patient with it. New York treats human euthanasia as a crime, allowing the injector to be charged with manslaughter. This is considered to be murder rather than suicide by many because it involved another person completing the act of injecting a patient with a lethal medication with the intent to end that patient’s life, even if that patient asked the person to do it.

Physician-Assisted Suicide

Like euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide involves a lethal dose of medication to a patient at the request of that patient. This differs from euthanasia in that the physician is not actually injecting the patient with the needle, but merely prescribing the life-ending medication and providing instruments to the patient so that he or she can inject the medication him or herself. Physician-assisted suicide is illegal in New York and forty-four other states, but it is legal in five states: Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, Montana, and Washington.

Withdrawing Life-Sustaining Treatment

A type of life-ending treatment that the state of New York does condone is to withdraw life-sustaining treatment that a patient relies on to remain alive. This involves withdrawing machines like feeding tubes, ventilators, and/or refraining from performing procedures or providing medication that would revive a person or prevent them from succumbing to their illness. A patient must have agreed to this prior to when the need for this type of treatment became evident. To do this, a patient can make this request by appointing a healthcare proxy and expressing to them his or her wishes by means of a “Living Will,” or by signing a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order which prohibits healthcare professionals from providing life-sustaining treatment in the event that the patient goes into cardiac arrest or other organ failures that may cause death.

In New York, terminally ill patients are generally not permitted to end their own lives in a way that goes against their body’s natural demise. While they do have the right to refuse medical treatment that may save their lives against an illness or at least delay death, the state can prosecute a doctor or other party who euthanizes or assists in a patient’s suicide and convict that party of manslaughter. As a doctor, it is important to ensure that a patient’s paperwork is in order before ceasing life-sustaining treatment to protect yourself against wrongful death suits or criminal charges.

As a terminally ill patient, it is important to understand your rights granted by New York State and ensure that the necessary legal forms are completed so that your wishes regarding end-of-life care are carried out. An experienced healthcare attorney can help inform you of your options and prepare the paperwork on your behalf. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call the New York healthcare lawyers at Blodnick, Fazio & Clark at (516) 280-7105 or (631) 669-6300.