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Advocates for New York medical aid in dying seek momentum for bill

Daren Eilert and his wife stand next to photos of their daughter, Aila Rain Eilert, who died in April from metastatic tongue cancer.
Photo courtesy Compassion and Choices
Daren Eilert and his wife stand next to photos of their daughter, Aila Rain Eilert, who died in April from metastatic tongue cancer.

Advocates for a measure to permit terminally ill people to request medication to end their lives say it’s long past time for New York to join 10 other states and allow the practice.

The bill, known as the Medical Aid in Dying Act, was first introduced in the state Legislature in 2016. It allows a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with six months or less to live to get a prescription from their doctor for medication that they can take when their suffering becomes too great to bear.

Corinne Carey, who has led the lobbying effort for the past seven years, said many of the advocates she has worked with were themselves terminally ill, and because the measure has been stalled in the Senate and Assembly, did not get to die peaceful deaths.

The group, Compassion and Choices, recently held a candlelight ceremony at the Capitol to honor 22 of those advocates.

“More than 20 amazing advocates who walked these halls, who organized in their communities, gathered petition signatures and built support for this bill,” Carey said. “They died by being ignored by those in power.”

Daren Eilert lit a candle for his 24-year-old daughter, Ayla Rain Eilert, who died from metastatic tongue cancer on April 2. Eilert said his daughter, a ballet dancer, endured months of pain from treatments, but when the cancer spread through her neck and closed up her throat, she begged for help in ending her life. Eilert said while he’s from New Jersey, where aid in dying is legal, his daughter lived in New York, and did not have that option.

“We watched our daughter suffer. It was horrible,” Eilert said, his voice breaking. “And she asked and asked and asked for medical aid in dying.”

Eilert said he and his wife tried to distract their daughter from her pain by telling her stories.

Lindsay Wright in 2016 moved from New York City to Portland Oregon with her husband, Youssef Cohen. He had late stage mesothelioma and wanted to be in a state where aid in dying was legal. Oregon passed a law more than quarter century ago.

“We moved 3,000 miles across the county,” said Cohen. “Why? Because, New York didn’t offer that option in 2016 and still doesn’t. And I think it’s an outrage.”

Oregon is one of 10 states, along with Washington, D.C., that authorizes medical aid in dying.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a sponsor of New York’s bill, said watching her sister die a slow and painful death from cancer motivated her to back the measure.

Senate sponsor Diane Savino has carried the bill for six years and is now retiring from the Senate. But she said she intends to stay involved.

“This certainly not the last time I’ll participate as a New Yorker,” Savino said. “But damn it, I’d like to get this down before this legislative term.”

The measure has more than 70 co-sponsors in the Senate and Assembly, but has yet to advance out of committee in 2022.

Polls show that New Yorkers support the measure. A recent Marist College poll finds most New Yorkers support the measure at 59-36 percent, with majority backing among Republicans, Democrats and independents, as well as upstate and downstate, regardless of race or gender.

Opponents include the Catholic Church, and some disabled rights advocates, who say it is morally wrong to end one’s own life, and that they worry the law could be abused and used to hasten the deaths of severely disabled individuals.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.