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Supporters, Opponents Debate Aid In Dying

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt
/
Lawmakers are debating aid in dying bills.

  

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 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 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 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 allowed her to focus on the challenges we were facing, instead of being absolutely terrified of the way she would die,” says Diaz.

On November 1, 2014 things became intolerable.

“Within five minutes of taking the medication, Brittany fell asleep very peacefully and within 30 minutes she passed away,” Diaz said.

Since then Diaz has become a full time advocate for the movement. He successfully convinced California lawmakers and Governor 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 Senator John Bonacic, a Republican. The other is sponsored by Democratic Senator Diane Savino, but  the concept has its staunch opponents.

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

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

Michael Burgess, with Senior Action Council, says it’s ironic that state lawmakers are pushing bills to prevent suicide among young people, while also backing measures that would make it easier for older people to end their lives. He says often an elderly person might just be depressed or feel that they are a burden, and 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, 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 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.

Governor Cuomo was asked to weigh in on the issue. He is non-committal.

UPDATE:

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.

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