Massachusetts top court appears open to legalizing medically assisted suicide

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 top court weighs constitutionality of medically assisted death
  • Practice is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia

(Reuters) - Massachusetts' top court on Wednesday appeared open to legalizing medically assisted suicide in the state as justices questioned why terminally ill patients do not have a constitutional right to control when and how they die.

Justices on Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court during more than an hour of arguments asked why the state had an interest in preventing a retired physician suffering from prostate cancer from being prescribed a lethal drug he could eventually use to end his life.

"In his own home, after living his own life, what interest does the government have telling him we're not going to let you end your life on your terms, we want you to end it on ours?" Justice Serge Georges asked.

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Roger Kligler, 70, a retired primary care physician, sued in 2016 alongside Alan Steinbach, a doctor who was willing to write prescriptions for lethal medication for his patients but feared prosecution.

They are appealing a judge's 2019 ruling rejecting their claim that manslaughter charges should never apply to doctors in such cases and that patients' liberty and equal protection rights under the state's constitution protect the practice.

John Kappos, a lawyer for the plaintiffs at O'Melveny & Myers, said that Kligler, who was diagnosed 20 years ago with cancer, "realizes his illness will overcome him eventually, and he does not want to endure unbearable suffering."

While a majority of the seven justices appeared skeptical that a manslaughter case could never be brought under the court's precedents, nearly all of them questioned why a prohibition against the practice was not unconstitutional.

"Why isn't it time to recognize that patients like Dr. Kligler have a right to decide in their own way, in their own terms, how they want to die?" Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt asked.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Granik argued there was a long history and legal tradition recognizing a state interest in preventing suicides and protecting its citizens' lives.

"There's no fundamental, constitutional right to assistance in suicide," she said. "The policy discussion about the pros and cons of legalization properly belongs in the legislature."

Some of the justices, though, appeared dismissive of the historical argument, saying the law can evolve and noting that 10 states plus the District of Columbia today allow for medically assisted deaths.

Justice David Lowy noted the state already allowed patients to object to medical care and have life support removed. He said there's really not a difference" between that and a patient asking a doctor for a lethal medication to end their suffering.

"It's blurry," he said.

The case is Kligler v. Healey, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, No. SJC-13194.

For Kligler et al: John Kappos of O'Melveny & Myers

For Massachusetts: Assistant Attorney General Maria Granik

For Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA: Chris Schandevel of the Alliance Defending Freedom

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the attribution for the quote in the eighth paragraph to Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt.)

Read more:

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 nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.