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Aid In Dying Advocates Bring Petitions To Cuomo

Karen DeWitt
Advocate Gene Hughes gives signed petitions to Governor Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David at the Capitol on Thursday.

People who say the terminally ill should have a legal option to end their lives with medical aid presented petitions to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday, asking that he and the legislature make that change.

7,500 attendees at the New York State Fair signed the petition, which asks that “a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less” to live be permitted the option to obtain medication to end their lives if “their suffering becomes unbearable.”

Corinne Carey, the organizer of the group, known as Compassions & Choices New York, gave the petitions to Cuomo’s top counsel, Alphonso David, who graciously accepted them.

Along with the petitions, supporters brought their personal stories, including Nancy Murphy, who lives in northern New York. Her sister lived across the border in Vermont, where aid in dying is legal. In June, the 86-year old was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer.

“That day, in the doctor’s office, when she got the diagnosis she said, ‘I want to use the law,’” Murphy said. “She was clear in her mind as to what she wanted to do.”

Murphy says in August, she and other friends and relatives held a special ceremony to honor her sister, which included a champagne toast, moments before she took a lethal dose of morphine.

“Each one of the family were able to say goodbye to her,” said Murphy. “We handed her the little vials of morphine, and she drank them.”

Murphy says within twenty minutes, her sister was asleep. She died two hours later.

Opponents of the practice, which they call assisted suicide, include the Catholic Church and some groups that support those with disabilities. Kathleen Gallagher, with the Catholic Conference, says she believes it’s “dangerous to many vulnerable populations here in New York.”

“Including the elderly, people with disabilities, the poor,” Gallagher said. 

She says last year, parishioners in just one Catholic diocese in the state, in Rochester, delivered over 12,000 signatures to Governor Cuomo opposing the concept.

Gallagher says the views of the Church are bolstered by a September 6th ruling by New York’s highest court. Three terminally ill New Yorkers brought the suit in 2015, saying that the ban violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the state’s constitution. The seven judges who took part in the case before the Court of Appeals all agreed that there is no constitutional right to using lethal doses of medication to hasten a terminally ill person’s death. They found that New York “has a rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide.”

“They said things like preventing suicide is a serious public health problem,” Gallagher said. “And what message would it send to say some suicides are legitimate.”

Gallagher says the court also expressed concerns that the lethal dose of medications brought into the home could fall into the wrong hands and be misused.

The judges said that the Governor and legislature do have the power, though, to create a law permitting the practice.

Carey, with Compassion & Choices, says the court decision was not a setback, and she believes lawmakers can craft a measure to protect the vulnerable. And she says New York’s proposal is based on laws in five other states, where there have been no reports of misuse of the law.

“Many health care professionals have now recognized that this is one part of continuum of comprehensive end of life care,” Carey said.

She says in states where the practice is legal most people with terminal illnesses do not take the option, but say it is a comfort to know that they could.  

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.