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WIth Cuomo's Support, NYers Fight for Legal 'Aid in Dying'

WIth Cuomo’s Support, NYers Fight for Legal ‘Aid in Dying’

Two months ago, New York-based artist and filmmaker Barbara Hammer died after a 12-year battle with ovarian cancer and without access to medication that would have allowed her to die on her own terms.

“She did not die the way she wanted,” said her partner Florrie Burke at the New York State Capitol Tuesday.

Burke and other supporters are urging lawmakers to pass The Medical Aid in Dying Act, which would allow terminally ill adults in New York to request and obtain prescriptions for life-ending medication from their doctors. The option is legal in only eight other states and the District of Columbia.

The bill has been introduced during each legislative session since 2016, and last year failed to move through a Republican-controlled senate.

But proponents are hopeful after New Jersey passed its own version of the bill in March. Nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers support the practice, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac poll.

Adding to the momentum, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced he’d support the legislation – taking a public stance on the issue for the first time.

“I say pass the bill,” Cuomo told WAMC’s Alan Chartock in a January interview. “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.”

Although proponents say the bill includes a dozen safeguards, including requiring a prognosis of six months or less to live and requiring two adults to witness the approval process, opponents believe the law could be misapplied by people seeking to take advantage or do harm.

“There are great disparities in access and quality of care at the end of life and we are particularly concerned about the impact of Medical Aid in Dying on vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Arthur Fougner, president of the Medical Society of the State in New York, in a statement.

The New York State Catholic Conference also opposes the measure, calling it “assisted suicide,” a term some supporters find offensive.

“This is not suicide,” Hammer said in a video released before her death. “This is my choice to choose my death at a certain time.” Hammer underwent over 100 rounds of chemotherapy during the course of her illness.

Proponents argue that medical aid in dying has a good track record in the eight states where it’s regulated and has largely improved autonomy for those with incurable illnesses by increasing end-of-life options.

“It comes down to supporting evidence-based health legislation,” said Corinne Carey, executive director of Compassion & Choices, New York.

Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who co-sponsors the Assembly version of the bill, said the issue has been “emotionally charged” among her constituents, but mostly in a positive way. The issue became personal after her sister died from ovarian cancer.

“We have had good momentum this year,” Paulin said, adding that she wasn’t sure if the bill would have enough support to pass both chambers.

Currently, terminally ill people in New York are permitted to end their lives by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, a process that often prolongs suffering.

Eighteen other states have introduced similar legislation this year.

Photo Credit: Allie Weintraub
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