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Supporters, opponents argue the merits of 'aid in dying' bills

J. Stephen Conn

A bill to make it legal for terminally ill patients to end their lives is being debated in the New York legislature. While many have compelling personal cases for allowing the practice, others, including the Catholic Church, remain opposed.  

Amy Paulin, an Assemblywoman from Westchester, is sponsoring a bill to allow what’s become known as Aid in Dying, after the wrenching experience of her sister’s battle with stage four ovarian cancer.

Paulin says her sister had to use feeding tubes for ten long months because her stomach was so compromised by the disease. She finally decided to refuse all treatment, and died three and half weeks later. The worst part, Paulin, says was that she was unable to be with her sister in the final moments.

“I will always remember when my brother-in-law said to me, ‘all she wanted was for you to be there,’” Paulin said. “It’s broken my heart.”

She says she doesn’t know if her sister, who lived in Georgia, would have wanted the option to end her own life at the time of her choosing, but she says others in that situation should at least have the choice. Paulin’s bill would allow a person with a terminal illness, confirmed by two doctors, and with a written request in front of two witnesses, to obtain medication that they could use to end their life.

Dan Diaz’s wife Brittany Maynard did just that after months of suffering from a very aggressive brain tumor. The couple moved to from their home in California to Oregon, where the practice has been legal for nearly two decades. They obtained the lethal dose of medicine, but were not in a hurry to use it.

“It provided her with relief and it allowed her to focus on the challenges we were facing,” Diaz said. “Instead of being absolutely terrified of the way when she would die.”

Finally, on November 1, 2014, things became intolerable.

“Within five minutes of taking the aid in dying medication, Brittany fell asleep, very peacefully,” Diaz said. “Within thirty minutes, she passed away.”

Since then, Diaz has become a full time advocate for the movement. He successfully convinced California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to pass a law, now he’s lobbying in New York, meeting with lawmakers, trying to get a measure passed.

There are currently two bills in the legislature. One is sponsored by Assemblywoman Paulin, a Democrat, and Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican. The other is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Diane Savino. 

The concept has its staunch opponents.

“It’s absolutely suicide,” said Kathy Gallagher, with the New York State Catholic Conference, who says the bills are essentially assisted suicide, which the church believes is morally wrong. She says there are several flaws in the proposed practice, including the lack of safeguards once a patient goes home with the medicine.

“There’s absolutely nothing to stop coercion, or somebody mixing it up in a patient’s food, tricking a patient to take it,” Gallagher said. “Because of financial exploitation or whatever reason that they want that person to die.”

Michael Burgess is a former director of statewide services for an organization called NY StateWide Senior Action Council. An official with the group says he does not represent NY StateWide Senior Action Council on this issue.

Burgess says it’s ironic that state lawmakers are also pushing bills to prevent suicide among young people, while they are also backing measures that would make it easier for many older people to end their lives. He says, often an elderly person might just be depressed, or feel that they are a burden. He says instead, people need to know more about options including palliative and hospice care.

“Many people who might contemplate this, if they realized that there’s an option for them to have social and spiritual support, and loving support from hospice and their family ,” said Burgess. “They’d decide against it.”

Supporters of the measures say they’ve built in safeguards against someone suffering from depression or a psychiatric ailment that impairs their judgment. Some of the proposed bills would make it a felony to coerce someone into taking the medicine.

Diaz, who is himself a Catholic, strongly disagrees with opponents’ characterization.

“The opposition loves using that term, assisted suicide, euthanasia,” Diaz said. “This program is none of those things.”

He says people are already taking matters into their own hands and illegally taking pills to end their lives anyway.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked to weigh in on the issue, and he is non-committal.

“It’s obviously complicated and controversial,” Cuomo said.

The governor says he’d have to see the details of the bill and “work through” it , before forming an opinion.

Note: An earlier version of this story quoted Michael Burgess as being part of the statewide group, Senior Action Council.  The organization wants to emphasize that Burgess was speaking on his own, and does not represent Senior Action Council, which has been neutral on this legislation. We regret any misunderstanding about the position of this organization.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.