ALBANY — A push to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill New Yorkers is running into staunch opposition from the lobby for doctors, Roman Catholic bishops and those saying the state does too little to support hospice programs.
The advocates for ending the Penal Law prohibition against "aid in dying" argue New York has fallen behind seven other states and the District of Columbia, where doctors are allowed to assist in the deaths of patients who have certified they no longer wish to live.
But Dr. Thomas Madjeski of Medina, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, urged lawmakers at a hearing Monday to keep in place the legal barrier that makes assisted suicide a crime in New York.
The state ban was upheld by the state's highest court in September 2017 and by the unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. The nation's highest court rejected arguments the ban is unconstitutional and suggested that any change in the prohibition would have to be decided by the Legislature in Albany.
Madjeski acknowledged there has been vigorous debate among the roughly 90,000 doctors who make up the Medical Society.
"There are passionate physicians on both sides making well-reasoned arguments," he told a panel led by Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat and supporter of legalizing assisted suicide.
But based on the "very preliminary" results of a statewide survey of the society's membership, Madjeski said the society continues to oppose legislation, authored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, that would that would allow doctors to help in suicides.
Paulin responded that the survey in question had been "hijacked" because it was circulated to some non-doctors.
Madjeski, acknowledging there were problems with the survey, indicated the Medical Society "does not anticipate changing its position on this matter any time soon."
The proposed legislation would allow a patient with an irreversible illness and given less than six months to live to request medication to be self-administered for the purpose of hastening the patient's death.
Among those backing the measure: former North Country lawmaker Janet Duprey, who in her legislative career was the first Assembly Republican to support the legislation. Paulin's bill is being carried in the Senate by Sen. John Bonacic, R-Orange County.
Duprey said her support was prompted by her experiences with her late mother and father. Both, she recalled, suffered in their final months and could have benefited if New York allowed doctors to assist in ending their anguish.
Duprey said she remains uncertain if either parent would have selected the option that the bill would allow.
"But I am certain that they should have had the ability to choose their own destiny, and I want the ability to choose my own destiny," she added.
National surveys have shown growing support for what supporters call medical aid in dying for those who are in great pain. A Gallup Poll snapshot of voter opinion in June 2017 reported that 73 percent of respondents backed assisted suicide, up from 68 percent two years earlier.
The New York advocates, led by a group called Compassion & Choices, argue there would be sufficient safeguards to prevent patients into being coerced to select suicide as an option.
Under the New York legislation, two doctors would have to confirm that a patient was in his or her dying months and that no coercion exists. Patients who request the medication could also change their mind.
They say the option has been a safe one in Oregon, which in 1994 became the first state to allow it, and the seven other jurisdictions that have followed — Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia and Hawaii.
Another proponent, Dr. Jay Federman of Saranac Lake, said aid in dying would not be an alternative to palliative care but instead would represent "one component of end-of-life" care.
But Dr. Stanley Bukowski of Alden said patients nearing death should have a doctor "walk with them" in their final days, not play an active role in bringing about their demise.
"In our culture we are slipping towards this idea that death can be (a) solution to problems, and when that takes hold there is no limit to where it can all go," Bukowski said in an interview.
So far, the GOP-led Senate has not advanced the legislation. Senators Betty Little, R-North Country, Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda and Jim Seward, R-Milford, have all signaled their opposition.
Kristen Hanson, the widow of J.J. Hanson, a Sullivan County man who was among the chief opponents of assisted suicide and died after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, told lawmakers New York ranks 48th out of 50 states in the utilization of hospice.
"Assisted suicide should not be the first thing we offer when it puts so many lives at risk," Kristen Hanson said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.