Changes to physician-assisted suicide legislation might calm critics’ fears

Gazette photo by Daniel Wells

Susan Rahn, a mother from Rochester living with terminal breast cancer, was at the Capitol Monday to share her story and push for legislation that would allow mentally competent and terminally ill New Yorkers to end their own lives if and when they choose. The bill updates previous legislation by clarifying that a mentally capable person must directly communicate their request for the drug directly to their doctor. Rahn was joined by Assembly members Dick Gottfried, center, Amy Paulin, right, as well as Senators Diane Savino and Brad Hoylman, not pictured, at a press conference organized by the group Compassion & Choices.

Revised bill contains new assurances that only mentally competent patients could request life-ending drug


Four state lawmakers on Monday announced they are re-introducing a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide for mentally competent, terminally ill patients in New York state.

Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island; Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale; Assembly Health Committee Chair Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan; and Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, stood outside the Senate chamber with members of the group Compassion & Choices to express their early support for the reintroduced bill.

According to Paulin, the new bill has an important revision to the legislation that died in the Assembly Codes Committee and the Senate Health Committee last year: a clarification on the necessary mental “capacity” of the terminal patient.

The new language requires that a mentally competent adult must communicate his or her request directly to a physician and that a report on the patient’s mental capacity must be shared with attending and consulting physicians.

Compassion & Choices Campaign Director Corinne Casey shared the progress that similar legislation has made in other states, including passage in Colorado, Washington D.C., and recent implementation in California, bringing the number of states with aid in dying legality to six.

Standing with the legislators, Susan Rahn, a terminally ill metastatic breast cancer patient shared her story. Rahn, a mother from Rochester, received her diagnosis in 2013, and has since tried many medications, radiation treatments and has undergone two surgeries.

Rahn’s biggest fear is the possibility of her cancer spreading to vital organs. “I don’t want to suffocate when the cancer gets to my lungs. I don’t want to not be able to eat when the cancer gets to my liver. And I don’t want to not recognize my son when the cancer gets to my brain,” she said.

Looking on were also staunch opponents to the bill, including the Manager of Government Affairs for the Center for Disability Rights, Adam Prizio. According to Prizio, the legislation could serve as a means to coerce disabled people to choose death. “Our society constantly tells people with disabilities ‘your lives are not worth living,’” he said. “Doctors are not immune to that bias, and neither are their patients.”

Prizio also suggested that the means of access to this option will reach further than cancer or other terminally ill patients. “There is no way to just restrict it to the few people who are truly exercising a choice that are supported by their family. It will include people who don’t have any other choices,” Prizio said. “It will include people whose insurance companies will deny them chemotherapy, but pay for their assisted suicide.”

The bill (A.2383/S.3151) would allow for mentally competent patients with a six-month or less prognosis the legal right to request a prescription for barbiturates to end their life at a time of their choosing. Terminally ill patients across the country have advocated for their legal right to aid in their death before their conditions make pain unbearable. New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act is closely modeled after Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.

For Savino, Paulin and other sponsors of the bill, passage would allow patients every possible medical option “regardless of their zipcode.”

“This bill is about patient autonomy and dignity,” according to Gottfried. “For over a hundred years, New York law has recognized that adults with mental capacity have the right to refuse life-saving treatment. Morally and legally, they should have the right to end their suffering through medication if that is their own choosing.”