Reporting was unfair on Medical Aid in Dying Act

A news article was printed in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on May 10 entitled “Assisted-suicide bill back before New York lawmakers.” The writer began by saying “several supporters gathered” for the Lobby Day press conference at the New York State Capitol on May 9. The Medical Aid in Dying Act for 2017 (S.3151/A.2383) had been reintroduced on Jan. 23, after having passed the Assembly Health Committee in the previous legislative session. To the contrary, well more than a hundred supporters attended, in contrast to only several in opposition. The slant of the “news” article was biased in the negative, citing a legislator who opposes the legislation without mentioning the many legislators who are not only supporters but sponsors of the Medical Aid in Dying Act. One supporter is Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a co-sponsor who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. The article’s bias is further magnified by calling Aid in Dying “assisted suicide.”

It is regrettable that so many in opposition have not read the content of the legislation that would permit a terminally ill, mentally capable adult to request life-ending medication from a doctor that the person can take at a time of his or her choosing, or never, should suffering become unbearable, so long as she or he can self-administer it. The legislation has many safeguards. Two physicians must confirm terminal illness and six-month prognosis. If either doctor has concerns about the patient’s capacity to make an informed decision, a referral must be made to a mental health professional. Medication can’t be prescribed until capacity is determined. Prescribing doctors must comply with extensive medical record documentation requirements and make records available to the Department of Health. No patient can be coerced or forced to choose aid in dying. There are other safeguards.

Oregon has had medical aid in dying for 20 years without a single charge of abuse. There is data from Oregon that of the 1,173 patients who requested lethal prescriptions, only two-thirds of these filled and used them. Only six patients were younger than 35. What has happened in the six states and District of Columbia that have medical aid in dying is that patients show reduced anxiety and fear at the end of life. They make end-of-life plans earlier with their doctors, caregivers and families. They choose their health care proxies more carefully to be in accord with their wishes. Hospice enrollment has increased in those states. Doctors and patients have more meaningful discussions concerning death rather than being only focused on how to prevent it. Modern medicine has the capacity for extreme measures for prolonging life well beyond a patient’s capacity for recovery. Why is aid in dying not considered medical treatment as much those “heroic” efforts to extend life for mere hours or days? Why must a terminally ill person, determined to hasten death rather than prolong suffering, need to deprive themselves of food and water, starving and dehydrating themselves to achieve that end?

Last summer I volunteered for a day at the Compassion & Choices booth at the New York State Fair. In one day, hundreds of fair goers eagerly signed postcards for their state legislators in support of Medical Aid in Dying. Among them were people who are disabled, saying, “Why should we not have the same options as others to make decisions concerning our own lives?”

If you are among those who wish Medical Aid in Dying to be available in New York state at your time of need, let your physician know. Physicians in New York will soon be polled concerning their support. Let your state Assembly and Senate representatives know. They will be determining whether the legislation can be brought to a vote. Voices in opposition may represent the very few rather than the many silent supporters of this legislation.

Phyllis Magnus lives in Saranac Lake.