Millions of Americans live in states where, if they become terminally ill, they are legally able to obtain a prescription for medication that they can use to end their own life on their own terms and timeline.
Whether to use medical aid in dying is a profoundly personal decision for a patient and their loved ones. It may not be for everyone. I have been lucky enough to have reached the age of 76 and not had a family member or close friend, that I know of, be in a situation where they needed to avail themselves of this option.
But I want all New Yorkers – including myself, if need be – to have the power to make this decision if they so choose because I believe it is a fundamental human right.
Over a century ago, New York’s highest court, in a decision by Judge Benjamin Cardozo (who later rose to the U.S. Supreme Court), established a critical benchmark for our right to self-determination, declaring: “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with (their) own body.”
Judge Cardozo’s words still ring true, and perhaps they carry even more weight today.
Medical aid in dying laws in 10 states and Washington, D.C. allow a terminally ill adult who meets strict criteria to have the option of deciding to end their suffering on their own terms and timeline. After extensive review processes, the patient may get a prescription from a physician, which they may – or may decide not to – use to end their own life.
I co-sponsored the Medical Aid in Dying Act when it was first introduced in the state Assembly in 2015 and fought for it until my retirement in December 2022 after more than five decades in office and 35 years as chair of the Health Committee. The current bill is sponsored by Assembly Health Committee Chair Amy Paulin and state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal.
The bill has support from a wide variety of organizations and individuals. Earlier this month, the New York State Bar Association, the nation’s largest voluntary state bar organization, voted to support passage of New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act, with Association President Richard Lewis rightly stating that the measure “offers both dignity and compassion for those grappling with what can be a very difficult time in their lives.”
Medical aid in dying has been a legal right in diverse states since Oregon first enacted it over 25 years ago. Yet New York, which prides itself on being a forward-thinking and progressive policy leader, remains frozen on a bill that would expand end-of-life care options and bodily autonomy and fundamentally alter lives for the better.
It has long been established in federal law and every state’s law that adults with decision-making capacity have the right to refuse medical treatment – including life-sustaining treatment.
We also have the legal right to require our health care provider to turn off or disconnect life-sustaining machines and tubes, knowing that the result will be death. With patient consent, a physician can order a high dose of morphine, knowing it will reduce the patient’s respiration and likely hasten their passing.
I firmly believe that these fundamental human rights cannot be separated from medical aid in dying.
Many terminally ill patients do not depend on tubes and machines to stay alive, so there is nothing for them to insist on disconnecting. Some have pain that cannot be relieved by even the most potent prescription medication. For these patients, conscious and alert, their suffering is intense. For these patients – who could be you or me or a loved one – the mere right to refuse treatment does not fully protect the “right to determine what shall be done with (their) own body.”
These patients deserve the power to make their own end-of-life care decisions.
New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act was modeled on existing state laws that have worked successfully – without abuse – for more than a quarter century and are far from over-used. To the contrary, about a third of the patients who obtain prescriptions under a medical aid-in-dying law never decide to use them.
I understand that many people, including many legislators, are reluctant or squeamish about dealing with legislating matters related to death. It is an uncomfortable and often taboo topic, even though it eventually impacts us all.
But it’s outrageous for the government to tell its people that they can’t have autonomy over their own lives, just like it’s outrageous for the government to tell people who to marry or whether they should carry a pregnancy to term.
Opponents worry that vulnerable individuals could be coerced or pressured into availing themselves of medical aid in dying. I am confident that the extensive safeguards in New York’s bill – which are based on, and even exceed, those that exist in other states – will ensure this option will not be abused or misused.
A large majority of New Yorkers – nearly six out of 10 registered voters – support medical aid in dying, according to a recent Siena poll. No elected official or candidate has ever lost an election due to their support of, or “yes” vote for, this important human right.
Medical aid in dying is a moral imperative and consistent with New York’s long-established human rights principles. It is both compassionate and correct. I urge the state Legislature to pass it without delay.
Richard Gottfried is an attorney who served in the New York State Assembly from 1971 to 2022 and chaired the Assembly Health Committee for 35 years.