Mass. top court rejects bid to legalize physician-assisted suicide

Retired Massachusetts physician Kligler, a plaintiff in a right-to-die lawsuit, speaks to reporters outside a courtroom in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston
Retired Massachusetts physician Roger Kligler, a plaintiff in a right-to-die lawsuit, speaks to reporters outside a courtroom in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Nate Raymond
  • Massachusetts highest court finds no right to medical aid in dying
  • Practice is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia

(Reuters) - Massachusetts' top court on Monday ruled the state's constitution does not protect the right to physician-assisted suicide, dealing a loss to advocates for terminally ill patients wanting to control when and how they die.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling came in a lawsuit by a retired physician suffering from prostate cancer and a doctor who was willing to prescribe lethal medications for his patients but feared prosecution for manslaughter.

Roger Kligler, the cancer patient, and Alan Steinbach, the doctor, had argued that applying manslaughter laws to medical aid in dying interfered with their equal protection and due process rights under the Massachusetts Constitution.

But Justice Frank Gaziano, writing for the 4-2 court, said that while the court recognized the "paramount importance and profound significance of all end-of-life decisions," the state's constitution does not protect physician-assisted suicide.

He said physician-assisted suicide raises philosophical and regulatory questions "best left to the democratic process, where their resolution can be informed by robust public debate and thoughtful research by experts in the field."

Ten other states plus the District of Columbia allow for medical aid in dying, though in most cases it became legal thanks to legislation or ballot measures.

Compassion & Choices, a group that helped bring the case and advocates for medical aid in dying, called the ruling a setback and said they would turn their attention to the state legislature.

"We intend to pursue all available avenues to secure this important right for the people of the Commonwealth," said John Kappos, a lawyer for the plaintiffs at O'Melveny & Myers.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the state's incoming Democratic governor, argued against recognizing a constitutional right but supports legislative action, said spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore.

Kligler and Steinbach first sued in 2016 and were appealing a judge's 2019 ruling rejecting their claims. Their case was backed by Compassion & Choices, a group that advocates for medical aid in dying.

In Monday's ruling, Gaziano said Kligler's claims should be tossed because, while he had argued patients with a six-month window to live are entitled to medical aid-in-dying, he does not have himself have that prognosis as his cancer is under control.

While Steinbach did have standing to sue, Gaziano said a lack of legal precedent undercut arguments that medical aid in dying was a fundamental right.

Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt, in partial dissent joined by Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, said she would have recognized a non-fundamental right to physician-assisted suicide that would allow terminally ill, mentally competent patients in the final stage of the dying process to "die with dignity."

(NOTE: This story has been updated with comments from the parties.)

Read more:

Massachusetts top court appears open to legalizing medically assisted suicide

Massachusetts judge allows right-to-die lawsuit to move forward

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at