Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals are urging state lawmakers to oppose the Medical Aid in Dying Act this session, and instead, promote palliative care and hospice care for terminal patients.
They stood with the New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide in front of the Senate Chambers on Tuesday February, 4, to ask legislators to oppose the Medical Aid in Dying Act (S.3947/A.2694) and promote more end-of-life care options.
The controversial practice of physician-assisted suicide, also known as aid-in-dying, assisted-death and death with dignity — depending on whether one supports or opposes the practice — is currently legal in eight states and the District of Columbia. This medical procedure allows qualified terminally-ill adults with a life expectancy of six months or less, to receive a prescription medicine to end their lives.
Both the Medical Society of the State of New York and the American Medical Association oppose “physician-assisted suicide.”
The current version of the Medical Aid in Dying Act was introduced to the New York Legislature at the start of 2019. Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, and Senator Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, are the primary sponsors of the bill. It currently resides in the Assembly and Senate Health Committees.
Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for the Patients’ Rights Action Fund led the rally. The group’s mission is to protect patients’ rights and stop the legalization of assisted-suicide. Her husband J.J. Hanson died from terminal brain cancer in 2017, but because physician-assisted suicide was not legal in New York, Hanson believes her husband was able to live three-and-a-half years past his life expectancy.
“Thankfully J.J. did not end his own life, but he said if he had those pills with him he might have taken them, and you cannot undo that,” said Hanson.
While specific qualifications to receive a prescription of lethal medicine vary from state to state, the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act would allow adults 18-years-old and older with the mental capacity, to make a voluntary prescription request. The medication can be self-administered and used, or not used, at the patient’s discretion.
Doctors like Dr. Matthew Lynch, a neurologist from Amsterdam, believe this bill does not include the minimal safeguards to be passed by legislators.
“Just because a person is unimpaired when consenting to a script doesn’t mean they won’t be when they decide to take it,” Lynch said.
Legislative Gazette news video produced by Emily Forman
Other concerns about the bill include a lack of mandatory training for doctors for prescribing the medication and the lack of a waiting period after patients request the prescription.
In states with “death with dignity” laws such as Hawaii, after the first oral request for a prescription there is a 20-day waiting period before a second request can be made, followed by another 48- hour wait after approval. These waiting periods are aimed at giving patients time to evaluate their choices to continue with the procedure.
“If I want to prescribe opioids in New York I have to take a three hour course every three years, if I want to prescribe medical marijuana I have to take a course and register with the Health Department,” Lynch said, “ But if I want to prescribe death under this bill I don’t need any specific training.”
Aid-in-dying laws have been introduced in the New York Legislature for more than two decades, since Oregon became the first state to enact the Death with Dignity Act in 1997.
Nonprofit organizations such as the Death with Dignity National Center and Compassions and Choices, work to support the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in existing states and future laws. Those that stand behind this alternative medical practice believe that terminally ill patients deserve the right to choose how and when to end their lives.
In a poll conducted by end-of-life rights group Compassion and Choices, 67% of surveyed New York physicians supported the proposed Medical Aid in Dying legislation.
While all the physicians present at Tuesday’s press conference oppose the Medical Aid in Dying Act, Dr. Mary-Ellen Edmiston, a palliative care specialist from Syracuse, promoted an alternative to this law.
“Hospice and palliative care as a medical specialty exists to help patients with life-limiting illness, experience the best quality of life possible as they face the reality of their own impending death,” Edmiston said.
Palliative care is providing support at the time of diagnoses for those with serious, life-threatening or terminal illness. While hospice cares provides the same comfort and resources after treatment has been stopped, during the last six months of life.
Edmiston called upon legislators to promote and better these services, including providing pain medication and palliative sedation for when patients’ symptoms become unmanageable.
“There are alternatives to unwilling suffering,” Edmiston said, “ We hope to provide more aid in living rather than more aid in dying.”
Physician-assisted suicide laws call into question how life and health care insurance coverage would be implemented once someone voluntarily decides to end their life.
Dr. Gregory Weston, an infectious disease specialist in the Bronx believes that if the Medical Aid in Dying Act is passed, there will be a financial incentive for insurance companies to make it more difficult for terminally ill patients to choose expensive alternative care like hospice and easier to choose physician-assisted suicide.
“Doctor-assisted suicide is especially dangerous for those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, isolated, the elderly, and living with disabilities,” said Weston, “ Those who are already marginalized and discriminated by our health care system.”
Senator Phil Boyle is the sponsor of bill S.647 that would prohibit health insurance coverage for physician-assisted suicide in relation to the Medical Aid in Dying Act. This bill is also under consideration by the Senate Insurance Committee.