I’ve Learned: It’s Time to Pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act
Recently, I had a learning experience that I don’t wish on anyone.
My dad was sick for several years and, like a growing number of adults across the nation, I was one of his principal caregivers. Pop spent his career as a maître d’ and was accustomed to waiting on people, not being on the receiving end of care. It wasn’t a position he enjoyed. His condition – and his quality of life – deteriorated to the point that he was wrenched in agony and couldn’t get out of bed. He clearly wasn’t happy.
“I can’t live like this,” he told me, repeatedly and with increasing frequency.
I was heartbroken. This was not my vibrant, positive, full-of-life father. He was hurting, and I was hurting for him, but there was nothing I could do. And selfishly, despite his pain, I wanted to keep him around as long as possible.
Although it was expected, I was still surprised and even unprepared when Pop died at the age of 84. I still miss him. But his death came with an important lesson. Losing him as I did – feeling helpless in the face of his suffering and his clear desire to pass – forced me to reconsider my longstanding and adamant opposition to medical aid in dying.
A proposed bill to allow medical aid in dying in New York would enable terminally ill, mentally capable adults with six months or less to live to request a prescription from their doctor for medication they can take to die peacefully and on their own timetable. New Jersey and Vermont are among 10 states, along with Washington, D.C., where medical aid in dying is authorized.
In 2018 – my first legislative session as Assemblyman – I encountered advocates for the Medical Aid in Dying Act. I always brushed them off. As a pastor and church leader, I was adamantly – to my core – opposed to this legislation.
This continued until not long after Pop passed. I happened to encounter one of the medical aid in dying advocates in the state Capitol complex hallways, and she told me her story about losing a loved one.
“All I wanted to do was to stop the hurt,” she said. At that moment I was back with Pop, helpless to stop his hurt. And I finally realized what a gift empowering a terminally ill individual – and their loved ones – with the ability to manage their final moments in peace and on their own terms can be.
As a man of deeply held faith, I believe that life is sacred, and we should do everything possible to prolong it. I am concerned about the recent trend of increased suicide rates in my community and around the state – particularly among young people.
But Medical aid in dying is not suicide, assisted suicide, or euthanasia. It is about stopping the hurt for someone who is facing down unthinkable pain. It is about providing them with the grace to decide, in counsel with medical and mental health professionals, their family, and friends, that because of their incurable and irreversible disease or condition, they’ve suffered enough.
So complete is my conversion that I not only support medical aid in dying, but I also signed on to co-sponsor the bill that would make it legal in New York. That bill has strong safeguards to prevent abuse. But it’s also worth noting that in more than 25 years since Oregon became the first state to approve medical aid in dying, there has never been a single substantiated claim of abuse in any state where it’s authorized.
To be clear, I am not challenging religious doctrine about medical aid in dying. I am merely saying that as a man of faith, I see the value in providing individuals who are suffering with the option to, within strict parameters, choose to free themselves from pain. If I’m wrong about this, that will be between me and my maker.
I strongly believe that my job as an assemblyman, a minister, and an activist is to keep an open mind. I am constantly learning new things and that knowledge and experience helps me help my constituents.
I wish it hadn’t taken losing Pop the way I did for me to learn this hard lesson.
I ask all New Yorkers – particularly my colleagues in Albany – to take another look at this legislation. Please, believe your eyes and ears, and listen to your heart. Learn from my experience. Don’t wait till it’s you or your parent, spouse or loved one.
It’s time for New York to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act.
Al Taylor is a Democrat who has represented the 71st Assembly District in Upper Manhattan since 2017.