ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state’s highest court took up the contentious and emotional debate over physician-assisted suicide on Tuesday, hearing arguments in a case filed by terminally ill patients who want the right to request life-ending drugs from their physicians.

To people who have long and so far unsuccessfully lobbied for a state law authorizing physician-assisted suicide the courts represent a promising alternative. Plaintiffs want the Court of Appeals to reverse a lower-court ruling that had dismissed the challenge and argue that existing laws against assisting a suicide shouldn’t apply to those seeking merciful ends to incurable illnesses.

“We don’t view this as suicide,” said attorney Edwin Schallert, representing the patients and other plaintiffs including physicians and an advocacy group known as End of Life Choices New York. “It’s a medically and ethically appropriate treatment … these are people who wanted to live.”

An attorney for the state, however, countered that assisted suicide is a question of policy that should be left to elected lawmakers.

“The state doesn’t discount the importance of what plaintiffs are saying here,” said Deputy Solicitor General Anisha Dasgupta. “The Legislature’s obligation is to take into account all of the citizens of this state.”

Questions from judges on the Court of Appeals touched on the distinction between physician-assisted suicide and the current ability of terminally ill patients to refuse food and water or life-sustaining care. The judges also said they understood the gravity of the question before them.

“This is a very different medical treatment,” Judge Michael Garcia said.

A ruling is expected this summer.

Legislation to permit and regulate physician-assisted suicide has been introduced but is not expected to get a vote this year. It would allow someone with a terminal illness to request life-ending medication from a physician. Two physicians would have to certify that the patient has a terminal condition and is mentally competent to make the decision.

Colorado, Washington, Vermont, California, Oregon and the District of Columbia have laws allowing people to request life-ending medication from physicians. In Montana, a 2009 state Supreme Court decision shielded doctors from prosecution if they help terminally ill patients die.