Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejects assisted suicide

State’s highest court says a question best left to state lawmakers, not the courts.

By Dave Andrusko

One would think that a liberal bastion such as Massachusetts would be easy pickings for groups such as Compassion & Choices, formally known as the Hemlock Society.

But in Kligler v, Healy, Massachusetts highest court handed down a decision this morning that ruled the state constitution does not protect physician-assisted suicide and that laws around manslaughter may prohibit the practice.

Writing for Masslive Chris Van Buskirk explained

[D]efendants in the case have said that the decision to legalize or formalize the procedure here in Massachusetts is a question best left to state lawmakers, not the courts. And in an 89-page ruling, Associate Justice Frank Gaziano wrote that the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with that position.

The court, he wrote, recognized the “paramount importance and profound significance of all end-of-life decisions” but that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights does not reach so far as to protect physician-assisted suicide.

“Our decision today does not diminish the critical nature of these interests, but rather recognizes the limits of our Constitution, and the proper role of the judiciary in a functioning democracy. The desirability and practicality of physician-assisted suicide raises not only weighty philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, but also difficult technical questions about the regulation of the medical field,” Gaziano wrote. “These questions are best left to the democratic process, where their resolution can be informed by robust public debate and thoughtful research by experts in the field.”

Opponents of assisted suicide have a history of defeating pro-assisted suicide initiatives in Massachusetts, including a ballot initiative in 2012, as the opinion noted. “Bills on Beacon Hill that would permit the practice have not managed to secure full approval from both the Legislature and the governor,” Van Buskirk wrote.

Justice Gaziano observed “Given our long-standing opposition to suicide in all its forms, and the absence of modern precedent supporting an affirmative right to medical intervention that causes death, we cannot conclude that physician-assisted suicide ranks among those fundamental rights protected by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” He added, “We conclude as well that the law of manslaughter may prohibit physician-assisted suicide, and does so, without offending constitutional protections.”

Gaziano wrote that some courts in other jurisdictions have come to different conclusions, but none has concluded that physician-assisted suicide “constitutes a fundamental right.”