A group of doctors and advocates against suicide gathered at the New York State Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 4 to oppose efforts to legalize assisted suicide in the state.
The Medical Aid in Dying Act, or S.3947/A.2694, was introduced in the state assembly and state senate in 2019. Both the assembly and senate versions of the bill are currently at the committee stage.
“We are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals. Every human being is part of a huge network of relationships with others,” said Dr. John O’Brien, a family practitioner from central New York who attended the event. “How physicians respond to the patient’s request for life-ending drugs can have a profound effect on the patient‘s choices, as well as on their view of themselves and their inherent worth.”
O’Brien shared a story of an elderly patient who had requested euthanasia. The woman, named Ellen, felt as though she was a burden on her family, and was suffering from depression in addition to chronic weakness. O’Brien said that with encouragement, Ellen and her son developed a stronger relationship, and she no longer wished to end her own life, eventually dying of natural causes.
“Physician-assisted suicide does not end the hurt, it just transfers it to another person,” said O”Brien. “I refuse to abandon my patients at a time when they need me the most.”
Dr. Mary-Ellen Edmiston, a palliative care specialist from Syracuse, said that instead of advancing assisted suicide, New York should instead move to further assist people who are in the last days of their lives.
“No patient should have to spend their final days in pain and torment, and with the medical resources now available to us, no one has to,” she said. These resources include medications, and, “ultimately, the choice of palliative sedation for when symptoms become unmanageable and unbearable.”
“There are alternatives to unrelenting suffering, alternatives involving a variety of treatments to ensure that our patients do not have only two limited choices: on the one hand, dying in agony, or alternatively, a physician-assisted suicide, meaning a death by their own, and their physician’s, hands.”
As the medical community is “increasingly invested” in training people in palliative care and hospice techniques, Edmiston said the focus should be on increasing hospice utilization within the state, not allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to their patients.
Elected officials, she said, should move to “provide more aid-in-living rather than aid-in-dying.”
Dr. Gregory Weston, an infectious diseases physician from New York City, also spoke about the importance of palliative care, as well as the discriminatory nature of assisted suicide.
“Many disability advocacy groups oppose doctor assisted suicide,” he said. “To understand why, consider the reason that doctor assisted suicide is not proposed for young, healthy, and strong people – it is because everyone seems to agree that no reasonable young, healthy, and strong person should consider her life no longer worth living.”
“Our doctors and legislators should send a better message: that every life is worth living and that no person is a burden, every person is valued,” added Weston.
Weston remarked that assisted suicide, if it were to become legal in New York, could result in insurers simply refusing to pay for expensive treatments and urging patients to opt for death instead.
“There will be a financial incentive for any insurer to make it more difficult to choose an expensive therapy, and easier to choose suicide. Decreased access to therapy is more likely to
affect poor and underinsured people,” he said, noting that in Oregon in 2018, about two out of every three people who died by assisted suicide was on a government insurance plan.
Weston echoed the call for better end-of-life care, saying “New Yorkers need better access to hospice and palliative care services,” and urging that all physicians have a standard level of training in palliative care.
“Doctor-assisted suicide is the wrong solution to a difficult and complex problem – we need to work towards a better solution,” he said.
Neurologist Dr. Matthew Lynch raised concerns that the Medical Aid in Dying Act does not have proper safeguards to prevent abuse and to protect patients.
The bill, Lynch said, “does not ensure that a person’s suffering is truly intractable. It is not offering a last resort. This proposed law does not require a person to try hospice or palliative care before receiving a prescription for suicide pills.”
“In fact, this bill does not even require a person to be suffering in any way,” he added. The text of the bill would allow those with an illness which will “within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months” to end their lives with the help of a doctor.
Lynch also raised his alarm that the bill did not require doctors to undergo any sort of training before they are allowed to “prescribe death.” Unlike other controversial medications, such as opioids and medical marijuana, the bill would not require doctors in New York undergo additional training before they are allowed to prescribe life ending drugs.
“Exploring requests for hastened death is a very complicated and time-consuming process that requires skill and experience,” said Lynch. “This bill does not ensure doctors would
have that experience.”
Unlike similar legislation in Oregon, said Lynch, the proposed law in New York does not have a waiting period or residency requirement. Both of these factors can result in the potential abuse of the law, he explained.
The press conference was organized by the New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, which describes itself as “an informal association of many diverse organizations, institutions, agencies and individuals in New York State committed to preventing the legalization of assisted suicide in the state. They include representatives of the following communities: disability rights, patients’ rights, health care, hospice care, civil rights, senior rights and various faith-based advocacy organizations.”
The rally was led by Kristen Hanson, an anti-assisted suicide advocate. Hanson’s husband, JJ, passed away in 2017, after a multi-year battle with brain cancer.