In New York state, if you are suffering from a painful terminal illness and want to die peacefully, you can’t.
Even if you’re mentally sound, your condition is beyond recovery and you are ready to pass on, your only option is to either commit suicide via other means, or live past the point where you feel your life is worth living.
This is a stark framing of the right-to-die debate, but it’s the plain truth of the matter. For years, advocates of the right to aid in dying — sometimes referred to as physician-assisted suicide — have been trying to convince lawmakers to remove legal barriers to the practice.
A new, bipartisan bill sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and Republican state Sen. John Bonacic would allow terminally ill patients the right to request a lethal dose of medication so as to end their lives on their own terms.
In response to the Medical Aid in Dying Act, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said, “My visceral reaction is I don’t like that for a variety of reasons. … This is an area where we need to be extraordinarily careful and circumspect. We’re literally talking about life and death.”
I’m sure Sen. Flanagan knows the job of lawmakers is to go beyond their visceral reactions.
I suspect he also knows the bill is, in fact, extraordinarily careful and circumspect. And it should be.
The bill requires that patients receive confirmation from two physicians that their condition is terminal, from two witnesses that their decision is voluntary, and from a mental health professional that they are mentally competent.
As with all prescriptions, no doctors will be forced to prescribe such medication if they do not want to. It is then up to the patient — no one else — to self-administer the dose, if and when they choose.
Critics will say that if we try so hard to prevent other forms of suicide, why should doctors facilitate it in this case? Isn’t this an arbitrary distinction? Of course it is. But government is all about arbitrary decisions.
Let me reframe the debate this way: The onus is on the government to argue why the terminally ill should be forced by legal statute to live beyond a point of their choosing.
I have no problem giving a healthy suicidal person all the resources they need to prevent them from taking their own life. Who does? Ultimately, barring doctors from helping the non-terminally ill end their lives is a line I’m comfortable drawing.
Most Americans actually support the right to aid in dying too — even if pollsters word the question as “assisting the patient to commit suicide” or something harsh to that effect.
A Gallup survey last year found that almost three-quarters of Americans believe doctors should be allowed to “end [a] patient’s life by some painless means.”
This isn’t a new and untested concept.
Aid in dying is currently legal in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and mostly recently California. Outside the United States, Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg permit the practice.
Because of safeguards written into the law, none of these places has seen the sort of rampant abuse which opponents fear. Indeed, abuse will be curbed by spotlighting the process with a legal framework.
We already allow patients the option of do-not-resuscitate orders, the ability to be taken off of ventilators, and the choice to opt out of a whole host of potentially lifesaving medical treatments.
I do not believe there is a functional difference between those options and what is being proposed now — they both result in an end to life.
To avoid pain, patients can already be completely sedated so that their final hours or days are spent in a virtual vegetative state. Some terminally ill people forgo food and water and then pass away as a result. Is that somehow more moral or more dignified than taking a painless prescription? I don’t know, and it’s not for me to decide.
Moreover, opponents of the bill ought to remember that it’s not as though current law prevents assisted suicide from taking place — there are many ways of achieving that end that don’t involve medical professionals. This law just grants patients the opportunity to have these conversations with doctors and to do it in as painless and comfortable a setting as possible.
This bill would most certainly draw back the number of less-than-medical attempts at ending one’s life — attempts which could cause unnecessary trauma for patients and their families.
The bottom line: I’m not advocating for aid in dying. I’m advocating for the right for the terminally ill to decide for themselves.
No one is saying this has to take place for everyone, but opponents of the bill are saying it shouldn’t take place for anyone.
If you think New Yorkers should have big government off their backs, this would be a good place to start.
Steve Keller of Averill Park is a regular contributor to The Sunday Opinion section.