Decisions about death belong to the dying. And good public health policy allows those who are dying to engage in open & honest conversations with their doctors, their loved ones, and their faith leaders about their physical and spiritual needs at the end of life. 

New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act will restore patient autonomy to those facing the end of life. Without it, doctors and family members risk criminal prosecution if they attempt to discuss and enable the full range of medical options that are available to an increasing number of Americans at the end of life. Let me emphasize this point: More than 20% of Americans living in Washington, D.C., New Jersey and eight other states now have a legal right to a full range of end-of-life options. New Yorkers do not. 

Compassion & Choices Sr. Campaign Director Corinne Carey addresses members of the New York State Bar Association on November 8, 2019.

The decisions that those who are terminally ill make right now — without this law — are too often tragic. Far too few take advantage of the wonderful benefits that hospice offers, and far too many who cannot bear their suffering any longer take their own lives in violent ways . . . leaving emergency responders and families to face the often-gruesome and always traumatic results. 

And, as we all know, some seek out and find healthcare providers who are willing to break the law without adhering to the safeguards this bill would require.

Others, when actively dying, and they finally lose the ability to speak for themselves, are held hostage to decision-making by healthcare providers and family members who may not share the dying person’s preferences for end-of-life care — over-medicated to the point that death is hastened, or kept alive by artificial means far beyond the point at which they would have wanted to go.

We have the power to change this injustice. 

The bill we’re discussing today is responsible and time-tested. It would give New Yorkers what the majority of them want: medical aid in dying as an end-of-life care option; vesting the dying person with the sole authority to ask for it when nothing else provides relief; and leaving this deeply personal decision to the dying person, their family, and their doctor. 

Legislative authorization of medical aid in dying is necessary because: 

  • Too many New Yorkers suffer needlessly at the end of life;
  • Too many endure unrelenting pain, despite even the best hospice & palliative care;
  • Too many turn to violent means to end it when medical aid in dying could help them die peacefully; and
  • Too many feel they have little decision-making authority over their own life (and death) when a terminal illness has taken over.

An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, like others across the country, support the right of mentally capable, terminally ill adults to receive medical aid in dying when their suffering becomes unbearable. And doctors do too: not only do the vast majority want it for themselves, here in New York, they support the legislation with all its attendant safeguards by a margin of 3 to 1. 

Opponents have stoked fears about the bill, but nothing they have said about this legislation since this bill was introduced in 2015 or even since the nation’s first measure in Oregon in 1994 is new or substantiated. 

In preparation for this meeting, I read all of the materials in your packet from my co-presenters. And I went back and re-read all the briefs in the Supreme Court case Vacco v. Quill; the amicus brief filed by the Center for Disability Rights in that case; and the 1994 report from New York’s Task Force on Life and the Law that recommended against adopting a medical aid in dying law at that time…..And I was struck by two things:

First, those 20-year-old documents read exactly like the materials that the opponents of this bill included in your packet. The arguments have not changed. These same arguments were all made before any state in this country ever approved a medical aid-in-dying law. Listening to what you’ll hear from opponents today, and what you’ll read in your packets …. 

It’s as though we don’t have more than 20 years of data and experience with medical aid in dying across 10 jurisdictions nationwide. 

It’s as though more than two dozen professional associations representing healthcare providers and researchers have not considered the evidence, and shifted their positions from opposition to neutral, or even supportive. 

It’s as though study, after study, after study, hasn’t affirmed what the Journal of Medical Ethics report about Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act said in 2007, nearly 10 years after that state’s law took effect. In it, they conclude that “Rates of assisted dying in Oregon … showed no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured … people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities . . . .”

It’s as though we don’t have an ever-increasing number of accounts from people who suffer needlessly at the end of life, despite access to quality palliative care, OR, on the other hand, accounts from the families of those whose end-of-life experiences were meaningfully transformed by the freedom medical aid-in-dying laws gave them. 

No. It’s as though none of those things have happened over the past quarter-century. 

Keep in mind that these laws have been under a microscope; the most powerful forces opposing this bill have had every opportunity to uncover real cases of abuse and coercion, rather than rely on a few erroneous and incomplete news reports twisted out of context …. And yet, many anecdotes and fears you’ll hear today are decades-old and long shown to have no merit. If you have any doubts upon hearing them, I appeal to your curiosity and invite your inquiry. 

On this panel, there is much about which we disagree. But the second thing that struck me in reviewing these documents is an argument made by Mr. Vacco himself in 1996 in his brief to the United States Supreme Court. In it, he said: “The question of whether physician assisted suicide should be prohibited . . . is one of legislative dimension, not constitutional imperative.” 

On that, Mr. Vacco, we agree. 

It’s time for the Legislature to do its job. And I firmly believe 2020 is the year it will happen.