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Medical Aid in Dying supporters aren't giving up on their bill as NY's legislative year ends

Corinne Carey, campaign director for the Medical Aid in Dying measure, lobbies at the State Capitol on May 30, 2023.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Corinne Carey, campaign director for the Medical Aid in Dying measure, lobbies at the State Capitol on May 30, 2023.

Supporters of a bill that would legally give terminally ill people the option to end their lives were at the Capitol on Tuesday to make a last-minute pitch to lawmakers who are still on the fence over the issue.

Advocates stood in an underground passage to the Capitol in front of memorial posters lined up against the wall. The posters feature the stories of loved ones who they say died suffering because they did not have the medical option to end their lives.

Corinne Carey, the campaign director for the measure, known as Medical Aid in Dying, said the bill could change those outcomes.

“New York's Medical Aid in Dying Act would allow someone who's terminally ill to ask their physician for a prescription for medication that they can take at a time of their choosing, or never,” Carey said. “Should their suffering become unbearable.”

Opponents, including the Catholic Church, say it’s wrong for someone to facilitate their own death, even if they are in the final stages of life.

Some groups that advocate for people with disabilities worry that the law could be misused to end their lives prematurely.

Carey said the bill has built-in safeguards to prevent abuse.

“Including confirmation from two doctors of the terminal illness that has to be incurable and irreversible,” Carey said. “And they have to make their request in writing and orally.”

And she said no one — not a family member, hospice worker or health care proxy — can make that decision for them.

Melissa Milch is the daughter of Dr. Robert Milch, a hospice care physician. She said she grew up hearing stories from her father about the suffering endured by many of his patients in their final months and weeks of life.

Milch said her father, through his practice, viewed medical aid in dying as a natural extension of end-of-life options that patients should have. Milch said her father asked for that option himself when his cancer became terminal. She said he spent the last few weeks of his life advocating for it.

“He spent a very, very good portion of his time, when he was able and healthy enough, calling lawmakers and writing letters to the editor,” Milch said. “Talking about the importance of patient advocacy, of patient autonomy, having peaceful death versus a death filled with suffering and strife.”

The bill did not advance. Dr. Milch died in June 2021.

Carey and other advocates take hope from two amendments to the bill released in the past few days. One would require that both witnesses who sign the request to be unrelated to the patient. It originally required only one to be unrelated.

Another amendment would require that the attending doctor, as well as the state health department, provide “educational material” on alternatives, such as hospice and palliative care.

Carey said they will try, in the final two weeks of the session, to garner the votes needed for the measure to pass.

“There’s a world of time between now and June 9,” Carey said. “If they have the will to do it, it can get done.”

The neighboring state of Vermont recently updated its Medical Aid in Dying law to allow people from other states, including New York, to access the procedure.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.