Civil Rights

Do Terminally Ill Patients Have the Right to Die?

June 7, 2023
terminally ill patients right to die

Table Of Contents


Because not everyone dies a quick or painless death, right-to-die issues will always be relevant. A civil rights attorney who is experienced in medical malpractice and personal injury law and has represented many terminally ill patients will understand the importance of death with dignity.

Learn more about the right to die in New York and some of the more potent arguments for and against the practice.

Defining Terminal Illness: What It Means and What Conditions Qualify

A terminally ill adult or child is a person who is expected to pass away within a few months due to a serious disease. Terminally ill patients have no reasonable hope of recovering either through medical means or by the body healing itself. The main forms of treatment they receive are palliative care or life-sustaining treatment, often given in hospice care.

Some illnesses that are terminal include:

  • Advanced cancer
  • Dementia
  • Lung disease
  • Advanced heart disease
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Generally, patients pass through three stages — early, middle, and last. During the early stage, interest in food falls off. In the middle stage, the patient eventually loses the ability to communicate. During the last stage, the patient needs significant care as their body begins to shut down.

Throughout the process, the patient and their family typically go through various episodes of grief and emotional trauma.

Understanding Terminally Ill Patients' Rights

Terminally ill patients do not have the right to die in New York, but they have other rights related to their condition. The rights of terminally ill patients to speedy trials exist if a patient's illness is alleged to have been caused by the actions that form the basis of the lawsuit.

The right to refuse treatment also exists, which allows terminally ill patients to cease medical care once they understand the consequences.

The right to continue treatment exists, as well as the right to extend the medical malpractice statute of limitations. Regarding the latter, advanced cancer patients can have the statute of limitations extended from when they knew or should have known about the cancer's presence.

rights of terminally ill patients

Why Should Terminally Ill Patients Have the Right to Die?

  • Autonomy: Competent Patients should be afforded the autonomy to decide their time and manner of death.
  • Compassion: Society should allow patients to avoid painful illnesses. Terminally ill patients should also be afforded dignity during the dying process as their bodies shut down.
  • Individual Rights: Society's duty to protect patients significantly diminishes when a patient is terminally ill and should give way to the patient's individual rights.
  • Transparency: Even though it's illegal, assisted suicide does occur in-state, just not out in the open. Being hidden prevents the exchange of ideas and stifles important conversations.

Common Arguments Against Physician-Assisted Death

  • Life Is Sacred: Religions and cultures around the planet and throughout time have held that life is sacred, and many believe that assisted suicide devalues life.
  • Abuse Potential: Legal assisted suicide could lead to vulnerable individuals facing coercion or persuasion to end their own lives.
  • Negligence: The assisted suicide process won't be free of the negligence of healthcare providers. And with such high stakes, many argue that it is better to disallow the practice altogether rather than risk even one case of negligence.
  • Professional Issues: Professional medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association, have not officially accepted the practice of assisted dying. Without express approval from the various professional organizations that control the healthcare industry, healthcare professionals who would engage in assisted suicide may have significant conflicts and issues.

Legal Options for Ending Life as a Terminally Ill Patient

Terminally ill patients in the United States generally have very few options for legally ending their lives. Currently, only a handful of states allow terminally ill persons to specifically seek out a doctor for the purpose of engaging in physician-assisted dying.

Most other states have laws dating back decades against assisted dying, while others have updated, added to, or created new laws against the practice.

In New York, the legislature was very close to passing the Medical Aid in Dying Act, which would have allowed New York healthcare professionals to assist patients in dying with dignity. However, the act did not pass, so the practice remains unlawful in New York State. That said, new efforts are underway to restart the work needed to get the bill passed.

As far as outside of New York's borders, terminally ill patients cannot legally get assistance with dying in a dignified manner in other states or DC without being a resident of that state, except in Vermont. Vermont recently removed its residency requirement for people with a terminal illness.

do terminally ill patients have the right to die

How Terminally Ill Patients Understand that It Is the Right Time to Take the Medication

Each person facing death has a unique experience. Some people's decisions are heavily influenced by the pain they are in. Others base their decision on the quality of life they are living or will live in the immediate future. And in many cases, terminally ill patients never even go through with the process but are comforted by having the option.

Physician-Assisted Suicide: Who Qualifies and What Are the Requirements?

As mentioned, no one qualifies for physician-assisted suicide in New York State. However, taking a look at the new proposed legislation will give you an idea of which patients may be eligible at some point in the state.

The legislation, if passed, would give end-of-life care patients the right to ask their doctors to help them end their lives. Doctors would accomplish this by prescribing their terminal patients medication that would end their lives. This action would be considered part of the patient's informed medical treatment; they would self-medicate on their own if they choose to.

The terminally ill patient is the most important aspect of the proposed law. Hence, the law requires that terminal patients be mentally competent when deciding to end their lives. They must also be adults.

How Attorneys Can Help Advocate for the Right to Die for Terminally Ill Patients

Our direct contact with our clients gives us insight into the most important perspective of everything that is going on — that of the patient. We are uniquely positioned to help change the attitudes and laws surrounding suicide with physician aid.

By the nature of our profession, we are in contact with many of the organizations and parties relevant to the matter, including, first and foremost, our clients, then judges, lawmakers, and community leaders.

Protect Your Right to Choose: Contact Our Attorneys for End-of-Life Legal Advocacy

Few states allow their residents to end their lives with the assistance of a medical doctor, and most have strict residential requirements. If you need guidance in matters related to dying with dignity, the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm is here to help. Contact us to learn and understand your options and the ramifications of your decisions during this difficult period. Call 212-869-3500 today.