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Freedom to die is a civil right: Pass the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

Zoe is struggling with aggressive Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, a cancer that has an average survival rate of three years, which she is now reaching.

The Long Island resident wanted to move to a state that allows terminally ill people to end their life at a time and manner of their choosing, but she doesn’t have the strength any longer. She says she thinks of medical aid in dying as “a hand at the top of the staircase. It would help give me the courage to keep going, and I’ll know that if I can’t manage the last few steps, that hand will be there for me.”

But New York law prohibits people like Zoe from accessing the aid of a physician to help them die in peace, so she can’t count on a hand at the top of the staircase.

The right to make decisions about your own body and health care is rooted in core principles of personal liberty and autonomy. Especially during the COVID pandemic, New Yorkers have had to talk more about death and dying. Far too many have sadly had to deal with terrible end-of-life issues for a loved one.

Just as people have the right to refuse medical treatment — even when it might extend their life, but impair the quality of it — they should have the right to seek medical aid when they are dying and medicine cannot prolong their life. They should be allowed to die on their own terms, with dignity.

Giving people choices when approaching the end of their life is also the compassionate thing to do. Many people with terminal illnesses endure intense pain and onerous treatments that cannot reverse the progression of their condition. Giving those people the choice to accelerate death allows them to end suffering when and how they wish.

The New York Medical Aid in Dying Act would allow mentally capable adults who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness to make the highly personal decision to bring about a peaceful end to their life with the assistance of medication prescribed by a doctor. This legislation would allow those individuals to exercise personal autonomy over how their lives end when the end is inevitable. Even if they choose not to request or take life-ending medication, just knowing that they have the option of exercising control over the end of their lives can bring immense comfort in their final days.

Critically, the bill recognizes that the decision to peacefully end one’s suffering belongs to the individual, and must never be coerced. To this end, the legislation contains numerous safeguards to ensure that only terminally ill patients themselves can request aid-in-dying medication, and that their decision is fully informed.

Among other safeguards, before a patient is prescribed medication under the law, they must make both an oral request and a written request signed by two witnesses. Those witnesses can’t be the physician or mental health professional administering the medication or evaluating the patient’s capacity. The legislation also requires attending physicians to discuss with their patients other end-of-life alternatives, such as hospice and palliative care.

Some opponents of this bill argue that, if we allow medical aid in dying, people with disabilities who already face stigma will be pressured into choosing that option. These concerns are sincerely felt, and I take them seriously. My organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union, has fought for the rights of people with disabilities for decades. And this legislation has been carefully crafted to prevent coercion.

Ten other states and Washington, D.C., already have medical aid in dying laws like the one before our Legislature — with similar protections for patients. In 2019, our neighbors in New Jersey became one of the most recent states to allow the practice.

None of these states has experienced the unintended consequence of patient coercion. In fact, the lesson from other states that allow medical aid in dying is that doing so can lead to greater awareness of the range of end-of-life options and more meaningful conversations between doctors about the process of dying.

This is a difficult issue that New York has struggled with for many years. But as another legislative session ends in Albany, it is time for us to take action.

Gov. Cuomo expressed support for the legislation, and polls show a strong majority of New Yorkers — regardless of party affiliation, region, race, religion, gender, education level, and age group — support medical aid in dying. Our state’s doctors support it as well, according to a survey by a group that backs the bill.

New York should pass this compassionate legislation that honors and respects the wishes of our fellow New Yorkers during the toughest time of their lives. The time for medical aid in dying in New York is now.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News

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