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Crain’s: Poll shows majority of New Yorkers support aid-in-dying as Assembly holds public hearing

By Jonathan LaMantia, May 4

While the state Assembly health committee heard hours of testimony on Thursday for and against a bill to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives, a new poll was released that showed the majority of New Yorkers favor such medical assistance.

The Quinnipiac University poll  of 1,076 New York state voters showed 63% support “allowing doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.” State voters who attend religious services weekly were the only demographic group that opposed the concept. They opposed the concept 61% to 34%.

Under the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), patients must make an oral and a written request, signed by two witnesses. Then two physicians must determine that the patient has the mental capacity to make the decision. If one or both of the doctors think the person lacks the mental capacity, a mental health professional will be called in to make the determination. A terminal illness is defined as one that will “within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months.”

Six states and the District of Columbia have passed medical aid-in-dying laws, including Oregon, which has had its law for 20 years.

Peg Sandeen, an Oregon resident and executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, Ore., pointed to the law’s safeguards, such as the requirement that information about palliative care and hospice be provided to patients.

“There is no current factual support for the slippery-slope argument that vulnerable individuals are at risk for being coerced into using the law,” she said.

An opponent of the bill, Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, told how her husband, Rob, who was physically disabled, faced discrimination in the medical system, with doctors who “withheld treatment and assumed Rob’s life was not worth living.”

“The Legislature enacting this would only increase mistrust” between the medical community and people with disabilities, she said.

Dr. Anne Nolte, a family physician in Manhattan and vice president of the New York Catholic Medical Association, said she fears the law would encourage physicians to pursue less aggressive treatment or allow rogue physicians to influence decisions on ending patients’ lives.

“There is no amount of regulation, no safety net, no series of checks and balances, which can with certainty keep health provider biases from influencing patient decisions,” she said.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the health committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, pushed back on her comments.

“When you find evidence of that speculation, I know you’ll send it to me right away,” he said.

Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine, told lawmakers his position has evolved since Oregon first enacted its law and he now supports the bill. He said his fears of abuse of the poor, uninsured and disabled did not materialize. The median age of those who use aid-in-dying in Oregon is 74 and they are most commonly middle-class white males.

“Palliative care and hospice can and do help many,” Caplan said. “I also know that they are not sufficient interventions for all.”

The bill is being debated by the health committee. Last year the issue didn’t make it to the floor in either the Assembly or the Senate. State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said he opposes medical aid-in-dying.