Aid-in-dying advocates share their stories in final push for legislation

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, is a sponsor of the aid in dying legislation. On Tuesday, she shared the story of her sister, who died last year after a battle with breast cancer. Gazette photo by Jonathan Forrester

Legislators and supporters joined with advocates from the group Compassion and Choices to urge passage of the Medical Aid in Dying Act (S.3151/A.2383) before the end of the legislative session next month. The bill would allow for doctors to prescribe barbiturates to mentally competent, terminally ill patients so that they may choose to die before their suffering becomes too painful for them and their families.

Susan Rahn, a terminally ill breast cancer patient, addressed the bill’s opponents who say aid in dying is “assisted suicide.” She said that she does not want to die and would not choose death if she had the option.

“I want to live more than anything else. I want to see my son graduate college, I want to see him finish medical school, and I want to someday hold my grandchildren,” Rahn said. “What I don’t want is to suffer and be in uncontrollable pain while my body shuts down for what could be weeks. I don’t want my son and my family to have to watch me go through that.”

Aid in dying is only legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana, Colorado and Washington D.C.

Lindsay Wright, wife of Youssef Cohen, a former professor of politics at New York University, spoke about her experience of moving to Oregon so her husband could “die with dignity” after his terminal diagnosis of mesothelioma. She held up a photograph of Youssef and his Oregon driver’s license.

“Youssef wanted to choose how he would die. He didn’t want to die in a hospital, and he didn’t want a long, drawn out death. He especially didn’t want us to watch him suffer,” Wright said. “Our home and our friends and family were here in New York. But he died 3,000 miles away in Oregon, because New York state doesn’t allow its residents with terminal illnesses to choose how they will die.”

Wright, Rahn and others spoke at a press event at the state Capitol Tuesday. They were joined by legislators who wrote and are co-sponsoring the Medical Aid in Dying Act.

Onlookers opposing the legislation held signs that read “assisted suicide= bad medicine” and “I’m not dead yet,” highlighting the other side of the debate — that assisted suicide is dangerous for disabled New Yorkers, and could possibly coerce vulnerable persons into choosing death to escape their disability.

“Our society constantly tells people with disabilities: your lives are not worth living,” said Adam Prizio, governmental affairs manager from the Center for Disability Rights. “Doctors are not immune to that bias, and neither are their patients.”

Advocates for the disabled community also argue that aid in dying laws could be used by health insurance companies to cut costs, rather than providing life extending treatments that may be more expensive.

Despite the argument against, bill sponsor Senator Diane Savino, D- Staten Island, argues that New Yorkers deserve to be given the choice.

“Every poll out there says the overwhelming majority of people in every area of the state support medical aid in dying,” Savino said. “I don’t know what my decision would be if I were in that situation. But I do know I would want the option for me and my loved ones.”