Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, has introduced “aid-in-dying” legislation with Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, sponsoring the bill in the Senate.
The bill (S.5814/A.5261-b) would allow terminally ill adults in good mental health to take medication that would allow for a peaceful death, and choose the time, place and manner of their death.
Paulin, accompanied by other advocates for the bill, held a press conference on the third floor of the Capitol last week to discuss the need for the legislation.
“The thought of having to suffer through a horrific, painful, degrading death, and one that brings added stress and agony to my loved ones, is inconceivable,” Paulin said. “If I am terminally ill, I should be able to choose to end my life calmly, peacefully and in a dignified way, at a time and in a setting I choose, where I am surrounded by those I love.”
For Paulin, this issue is personal. Her sister was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer four years ago. Although her cancer went into remission, it came back and soon treatment was proving ineffective.
“When I introduced this bill, I didn’t know two months later I would live this bill,” Paulin said. She said her sister had to go to hospice care in Georgia where she withdrew food and medicine, dying three and a half weeks later. Paulin was not able to be there with her when she died.
“She chose to die, she chose that,” Paulin said. “I don’t see any difference, except this is more peaceful, it’s with more dignity, and she deserved to have this as an alternative.”
Advocates of the legislation stressed the idea that patients should have all options available to them, including taking barbiturates that would end their life.
“When the suffering becomes unbearable we should have the right to decide how we are going to die,” said David Leven, executive director of End of Life Choices New York. “No dying person should have to endure more suffering than he or she is willing to endure.”
Paulin said the bill has safeguards to prevent wrongdoing. One of these safeguards includes a clause where once death is requested by the patient, two witnesses would have to sign off that the patient is willing and capable of making the decision. The witnesses cannot be related to the patient, be entitled to any property from the patient, or be an employee of the health care facility where the patient is being treated.
Stephen Hayford, legislative director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and Communications Director of New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, was critical of the proposed bill, calling it “problematic in every way.”
“The idea that assisted suicide is not suicide is problematic,” Hayford said. “Suicide is suicide. Assisted suicide also brings other people into that process, it may be the physician, it may be the nurse, it may be the pharmacist, in a very negative way.”
Paulin disagreed with Hayford’s criticism, saying that a patient deciding to end their life is not much different from a patient deciding to withdraw life support.
“Suicide in my mind implies that you’re not terminally ill, and going to die anyway,” Paulin said. “As unfortunate as it is, it’s a matter of when it’s gonna be. This has to do with compassion for the person who is dying and their families. It’s not assisted suicide.”
Hayford also mentioned hospice care as an alternative, that no person should ever have to use parameters in the proposed legislation.
Dr. Timothy Quill, professor of medicine, psychiatry, and medical humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, said although he is a supporter of hospice care, it isn’t always the best option.
“Hospice works most of the time; it’s highly effective,” Quill said. “But everybody who works in hospice and palliative care knows that there are always a few cases where suffering becomes severe toward the very end, where our usual answers are insufficient.”
A 2015 survey conducted by the nonprofit organization Compassion and Choices, which advocates for aid in dying legislation, found that 77 percent of New York state registered voters support access to aid in dying. Much of its opposition comes from religious groups and some physicians groups.
California was the most recent state to legalize “aid in dying” legislation, in October of last year. New York would become only the sixth state to adopt this law.
The bill is in the Health Committee in both the Assembly and Senate.