New York Could Join Growing Number of States Legalizing Medically Assisted Death

New York’s effort is more than eight years in the making, and similar measures are legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

Jsme MILA via
More American states are considering changing their laws surrounding medically assisted suicide. Jsme MILA via

A years-long battle to legalize physician-assisted death is gaining traction in New York, as lawmakers there join those in a growing number of states who are considering the practice. 

So-called death with dignity or medical aid in dying measures are legal in 10 states and Washington, D.C. Efforts to legalize it are under way in a slew of other states, including Missouri, Michigan, Tennessee, and Florida.

In New York, debate is emerging about the legality and ethics of its Medical Aid in Dying Act, part of an national conversation that has been taking place since a 1997 Supreme Court ruling in Washington v. Glucksberg that set the path forward for Americans to take part in “an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician assisted suicide.”

Proponents of the legislation say it would help end suffering and allow terminally ill patients to die peacefully with their families and loved ones. Opponents say assisting in a patient’s death is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath and argue that it gives onto a slippery slope. They cite Canada’s skyrocketing death toll and its law that will soon allow for assisted suicide for individuals with mental health conditions.

There is broad public support for the measures, including Gallup polling showing that Americans have “consistently favored doctor-assisted suicide” for nearly 30 years. In New York, recent Siena College polling indicates that nearly 60 percent of registered voters are in support of legislation that would enable doctors to “prescribe lethal drugs that a terminally ill patient with demonstrated decision-making capacity could take on their own in order to end their own life.” 

A coalition called the New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide is opposing the measure and is working to prevent its passage. The alliance includes the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, whose president warns that “assisted suicide is fundamentally a disability issue,” since many patients who receive lethal prescriptions need help with “activities of daily living, which is pretty much the definition of a disability.” 

“It’s still got a long way to go through committees and so forth, and we’re not giving up on that,” Not Dead Yet’s president, Diane Coleman, tells the Sun. “They’re pushing that this is going to happen, but so far, it hasn’t, and we have not changed our mind that this is a dangerous proposal for older, ill, and disabled people.” 

This is, she argues, especially true for Black, indigenous, and other people of color, as well as other marginalized groups, such as seniors, “all of whom have, research shows, been devalued in the healthcare system.” Doctors lack a “crystal ball” to know when or if someone is guaranteed to die soon, she adds.

“Even the data within the states in the U.S. show that people who turn out not to actually be terminally ill are getting lethal prescriptions,” Ms. Coleman says. “As disabled people, many of us who’ve had disabilities for a long time, ourselves or among our friends, know people who were predicted to be dead soon and it didn’t turn out to be the case. My parents were told I would die by the age of 12; I’m now 70.” 

Proponents of the legislation say there’s no evidence to suggest that it will harm those with disabilities or that it could be expanded to include more groups, as it has in Canada.

“I actually think that some of the opponents of this bill are doing the disability community a grave disservice by causing people to fear for their lives, when none of the harms that opponents have ever predicted about medical aid and dying have ever come to pass in any state that has passed a medical aid dying law,” a senior campaign director for Compassion and Choices, Corinne Carey, tells the Sun.

The eligibility criteria for the legislation — being an adult with decision-making capacity, as well as having an “incurable and irreversible” terminal illness with a six-month prognosis of time left to live — haven’t been expanded in other states, such as Oregon, after they were put in place three decades ago, she adds. 

“The idea that in the United States, these laws would be expanded to include a category of people beyond those who are eligible now — dying adults — is absurd. It has never happened. There’s never been a serious attempt to do so,” she says. 

While Ms. Carey has been fighting for legislation to legalize physician-assisted death in New York since 2015, one hurdle advocates face is that talking about dying is difficult. “What we’ve found is that this bill is not a priority for anyone, until it is,” she notes. 

Yet as awareness about the legislation is increasing, she has heard “a clamor” from the public and “a lot of confusion about why this isn’t already law,” she says, adding that there is support for it across demographics and party lines. 

“We have lost 26 advocates who came to Albany and pleaded with lawmakers for themselves, that they wanted this as an option at the end of their lives,” she says. “And each year that lawmakers adjourn, and don’t take up the bill, more of our advocates and countless others across the state suffer.”

The New York Sun

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