By Andrew Vitelli – In a charged debate before a packed crowd last Monday, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) defended her proposed “Aid in dying” legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to receive medication to end their lives.
Paulin, the sponsor of the controversial legislation, was joined in support of the proposal by David Leven, the executive director of End of Life Choices New York, and Stacey Gibson, a volunteer advocate for Compassion & Choices. Paulin said she had supported aid in dying intellectually, but cited the death of her sister, who had been battling ovarian cancer, as turning her into a passionate advocate. She described the years and weeks leading up to her sister’s death, saying her last weeks were spent waiting to die.
“That’s not the way she wanted to die,” Paulin, a Democrat who represents parts of Westchester including White Plains, said. “I don’t know whether my sister would have taken a pill. I could only tell you that she wanted to die with all of us there. She wanted to get rid of the pain.”
Opposing the legislation were Edward Mechmann of the Archdiocese of New York, Patients’ Rights Action Fund President J.J. Hanson, and Anna Fay, a board member for Westchester Disabled on the Move. Hanson described being diagnosed in 2014 with terminal brain cancer and being told he had just four months to live. He has now passed the two-year mark, he said, and has been told he has no signs of cancer in his brain.
“One of the critical flaws of this issue is that doctors are not always correct. They’re human beings. They make mistakes,” Hanson said. “That is significant, especially when you are talking about a patient that is potentially at the end of life.”
The debate was hosted by The Journal News and moderated by Gary Stern and Nancy Cutler. It was held at the Scarsdale Library in a room too small for the crowd of around 200 people, mostly partisans for one side of the debate, who filled every seat and lined up in the back of the room and against the walls.
The supporters of the legislation argued that allowing aid in dying – which was also referred to as assisted suicide, though the supporters of the bill resisted that term – would empower people close to death.
“The question is, ‘Who is going to make the decision at the end of our lives as to how we die?’” Leven asked. “Is it going to be you as an individual? Or is it going to be the government, which says, ‘No, you cannot end your lives this way?’”
Supporters also pointed out that under current law, terminally ill patients could decide to end life-saving treatment, which had the same effect as allowing doctors to administer life-ending drugs. Gibson noted that hospice centers allow voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED), which hastens a patient’s death. Aid in dying, Gibson said, is “far more humane and far more dignified than what VSED will allow people to do.”
Paulin’s proposed legislation would require two physicians to determine that the patient has a terminal illness that can be expected to cause death within six months. Patients are provided a lethal dose of medication to self-administer. The cause of death listed on the death certificate would be the underlying illness rather than suicide.
But opponents of the proposal said aid in dying would inevitably expand beyond the terminally ill.
“There is no way, ultimately, in the long run, to limit this kind of process, this kind of thing, to just people who are terminally ill with six months left to live,” Mechmann said. He pointed to more lenient laws in countries like Switzerland. “This is not a scare tactic argument. This is current events.”
Fay said she believed doctors will be affected by their emotions and personal beliefs.
“They are making decisions based on what they believe,” Fay said. “And if they believe that not having control over your bladder and bowel is worse than death, then they’re going to think you should get the medication.”
The most impassioned exchanges between the panelists came over the language of the bill, regarding reporting requirements and conscience clauses for doctors who do not want to be involved in aid in dying. The audience also got into it, with supporters of both sides at times shouting over their opponents. Many who opposed the legislation held up signs reading “Not Dead Yet” or “No More Killing.”
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