I met Eleanor Aronstein four years ago, when I attended a talk she gave on the right-to-die movement at the public library in Niskayuna.
The Schenectady resident is a vocal champion of the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act, which would allow terminally ill, mentally capable adults with six months or less to live to request life-ending medication from a physician.
“For me, life is good,” Aronstein, now 80, told me when I visited her in her home earlier this spring. “But there may come a time when life is not going to be good. There’s no intrinsic value in suffering if you cannot change the outcome.”
When I wrote about Aronstein’s Medical Aid in Dying advocacy in 2015, the legislation stood little chance of becoming law.
But things changed this year when the bill picked up a big supporter: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who expressed support for it for the first time.
“I say pass the bill,” the governor said in April, in an interview on WAMC. “It’s a controversial issue, it’s a difficult issue, but the older we get and the better medicine gets the more we’ve seen people suffer for too, too long.”
Medical Aid in Dying is unlikely to pass the Legislature this year, but Cuomo’s support for the bill suggests that it will eventually become a reality, if not this year, then maybe next year or the year after.
The idea underpinning Medical Aid in Dying is a simple one: People with terminal illnesses should have the right to peacefully end their lives rather than suffer a protracted and painful death.
It’s a right I support, though I’m also a big supporter of hospice and palliative care, and believe officials should do everything they can to ensure that strong hospice and palliative care programs are available in their communities.
Hospice focuses on caring for patients at the end of life, rather than trying to cure what ails them, while palliative care focuses on relieving pain. They’re wonderful programs, and they can help provide patients with “the good death” that Aronstein speaks of.
But their existence doesn’t obviate the need for Medical Aid in Dying Laws.
There always will be people — hopefully a tiny minority of people — who find their suffering too much to bear.
Allowing them to end their lives calmly and peacefully at a time and place of their choosing is an act of mercy.
Aronstein’s support for Medical Aid in Dying, what used to be known as physician-assisted suicide, is personal.
Her advocacy is inspired by her mother, who died from ovarian cancer in the early 1970s.
It was a “terrible death,” Aronstein recalled, because “for 11 months my mother suffered. Years later, our beautiful family dog was injected with a fast-acting barbiturate and I held her in my arms and she slipped away. I thought, ‘People should have this opportunity. This is a beautiful way to go.'”
“We cherish life, that’s why [aid in dying] is such an uphill battle,” Aronstein said. “I cherish life, but when life becomes inexorably painful, maybe it’s time to say it’s time to exit.”
Medical Aid in Dying might be an uphill battle, but there are signs that’s changing.
In March, New Jersey became the eighth state to approve Medical Aid in Dying. And a recent Siena Research Institute poll found that 58 percent of voters support Medical Aid in Dying, while 34 percent oppose it.
Opposition and concerns persist, but the packed presentation I watched Aronstein give in 2015 suggests that people want to know more about Medical Aid in Dying and are open to supporting it.
In the years since, that openness has only increased, and with good reason: People like the idea of a good death, and view Medical Aid in Dying as a tool that can help them attain the good death they desire.
I’m one of those people.
I’d like to think that, should I ever be terminally ill and in unbearable pain, Medical Aid in Dying will be there for me.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]