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NYSNYS NEWS: Legislature exploring latest battleground in life and law, legalizing doctor-assisted suicide.
NYSNYS NEWS: Legislature exploring latest battleground in life and law, legalizing doctor-assisted suicide.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 10) — New York has a long history at the cutting edge of law and human life, and now legislators are exploring its newest frontier — doctor-assisted suicide.

Bills pending in the Legislature would allow New York doctors to prescribe medications that are powerful enough to end a life. The bills shield doctors from any legal liability as well as guarantee survivors life insurance payouts and other benefits by declaring such deaths are natural rather than by suicide.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking a cautious view of the bills, which have not advanced out of committee.

“It’s obviously complicated and controversial and its going to depend on how the bill was written and what its provisions are,” Cuomo said when asked about the measure recently. “That’s a bill that I would have to see and work through.”

Corinne Carey, a lobbyist for the group Compassion and Choices, said Thursday that the bills will help people in need. The group calls the proposals “medical aid in dying.”

“For that small number of people for whom even the gold standard of palliative care is not enough, this provides a way for people to die a painless and peaceful death,” she said. “Some people suffer greatly as the end and no amount of palliative care will help them.”

The Catholic Conference opposes the bills on religious and policy grounds. “We worry very much about vulnerable patients — the elderly and patients without strong family structures,” spokesman Dennis Poust said Thursday. “And we worry about coercion from insurance companies and for family members that may have to care for them. The disability community is very concerned about it for these same reasons.”

The Medical Society of the State of NY has also weighed in, asserting in a policy that assisted suicide and euthanasia are unacceptable. “Compelling arguments have not been made for medicine to change its footing and to incorporate the active shortening of life into the norms of medical practice,” the 2015 policy adopted by MSSNY’s House of Delegates says. “Although relief of suffering has always been a fundamental duty in medical practice, relief of suffering through shortening of life has not. Moreover, the social and societal implications of such a fundamental change cannot be fully contemplated.  MSSNY supports all appropriate efforts to promote patient autonomy, promote patient dignity, and to relieve suffering associated with severe and advanced diseases. Physicians should not perform euthanasia or participate in assisted suicide.”

Opponents of the bills held an Albany press conference this week to warn that it was ripe for abuse of disabled people and those with untreated psychological depression who are otherwise in good health. A doctors’ prognosis is not infallible, said JJ Hanson, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014.

“I was told on three separate occasions that I could not beat this disease,” he said. “If I was listening to one of these doctors, I would not be here talking to you. Doctors make mistakes. They are not always correct.”

“This isn’t an issue about the elderly, this is an issue about all of society,” he said. “It’s an issue about those who are disabled. It is an issue about those who are poor. It is an issue about those who need help. That help should be coming in other forms … not in the form of helping them to end their life.”

One bill called the Patient Self-Determination Act enables “mentally competent, terminally ill patients to choose to self-administer medication to bring about a peaceful death. It also provides their physician, when acting in good faith in accordance with the provisions of the Act, protections from civil and criminal liability and professional disciplinary action.”

The bill says “the death certificate shall indicate that the cause of death was the underlying terminal illness or condition of the patient,” not suicide. Most life insurance policies have a “suicide clause” of one form of another, with some not paying if a person kills themselves within two years of taking out a policy.

The bill memo cites the death of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old California woman who received worldwide attention when she traveled to Oregon to commit medical suicide in 2014. She had brain cancer, the same disease that Hanson fought, and her death prompted California to pass a law. Bills also followed in New York and nearly two dozen other states.

“These patients, when mentally competent and without impaired judgment, should be afforded this right,” the bill memo says. “Patients should not be forced to relocate to another state or to leave the country to control how their lives end. Patients seek to die with dignity, on their own terms, typically in their own homes, surrounded by their family and other loved ones.”

The second bill called the New York End of Life Options Act covers much the same ground.

Five states, including neighboring Vermont, already have similar laws, with barbiturates usually used for fatal prescriptions.

Doctor-assisted suicide is now illegal in New York thanks to a landmark 1997 Supreme Court ruling that said states have the right to outlaw the practice. The court said the Constitution does not guarantee to the right to commit suicide and get help from anyone to do so.

The case of Vacco v. Quill saw doctors arguing that “because New York permits a competent person to refuse life sustaining medical treatment, and because the refusal of such treatment is ‘essentially the same thing’ as physician assisted suicide, New York's assisted suicide ban violates the Equal Protection Clause,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the opinion in the unanimous decision upholding New York’s ban, which has been in place since 1965.

“By permitting everyone to refuse unwanted medical treatment while prohibiting anyone from assisting a suicide, New York law follows a longstanding and rational distinction,” Rehnquist wrote.

The 1965 law was one of many the state has passed to sort out thorny issues of law and human life.

From 1912 until the law was declared unconstitutional in 1918, it was legal to sterilize people in state custody. “Inmates of State hospitals for the insane, State prisons, reformatories, and charitable institutions, and rapists, and confirmed criminals in penal institutions” were candidates for sterilization, a state board ruled.

A total of 42 mostly mentally ill women were sterilized before the law was repealed in 1920. Most of the sterilizations were performed at Gowanda State Hospital in Erie County, which has since been converted into a state prison complex.

New York was also a pioneer in abortion rights, legalizing abortion on demand through 24 weeks in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. Since taking office in 2011, Cuomo has made it one of his top priorities to expand the 1970 law to permit abortions anytime before birth, making it part of his “Women’s Equality Agenda.”

The NYS Health Department reported 94,326 inducted abortions in New York in 2013, the last year where date is available.

There’s no estimate on the number of potential aid in dying cases there could be in New York, but Carey said Oregon’s experience with the law over 14 years suggests it would not be many. About 1,400 patients have received prescriptions, and just over 900 of them ended up taking a fatal drug dose, she said.