Talking About Death Is Hard; Easing Suffering Is Not
We Can Give Terminally Ill, Suffering New Yorkers a Peaceful Option.
Throughout our lives – even more so in the last two years – we’ve all had to deal with the death of a family member, friend or loved one. Talking about death is never easy. Talking with someone who is dying is even harder.
But sometimes that’s part of the job for state legislators. Even more so as our state considers a law to authorize medical aid in dying, a proven compassionate end-of-life care option that can stop the suffering that too many New Yorkers must now endure.
Barbara Hammer, a celebrated filmmaker, died in March 2019, age 79, after a 12-year battle with ovarian cancer. In her final weeks, Barbara spent her precious time advocating for the Medical Aid in Dying Act (S.6471/A.4321), sponsored by Senator Diane Savino and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin. I had the honor of visiting Barbara for a few hours in the weeks before she died in the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her spouse, human rights activist Florrie Burke.
My time with Barbara will stay with me forever. I didn’t look forward to meeting with a dying constituent, even though I had admired her work. Remaining free of pain was becoming more challenging for Barbara. While it was clear her body was giving out on her –– it was also clear how strong, smart, determined, and brave Barbara was.
Barbara shared with me the details of her 12-years of myriad treatments, multiple surgeries, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, and the debilitating, painful side effects. She told me about her topnotch hospice care, but she was still concerned she would suffer at the end. I was heartbroken when Barbara died, but I treasure our brief time together.
Barbara’s last published words were in a Daily News op ed. She wrote: “Hear the request of this dying woman. Please pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act to allow terminally ill New Yorkers to decide if they want to get a doctor’s prescription for medication they can take if their suffering becomes intolerable, so they can end their lives peacefully in their sleep. All of us deserve to die in a way that is consistent with our beliefs.”
There are countless other similarly heartbreaking stories.
Last year, my colleague, Assemblymember Fred Thiele also met with a dying constituent and friend of his, Zachary Cohen of East Hampton. Zachary said in a video, “I do not want to die but I more strongly do not want to suffer as I am dying. New York needs a law to authorize medical aid in dying. And that’s why I called my friend, Assemblyman Fred Thiele.”
Assemblymember Thiele told me, “I promised Zach I would do everything I can to help ensure that 2022 is the year New York finally passes the Medical Aid in Dying Act. There are too many dying New Yorkers who need this compassionate end-of-life care option. They need it now and I’m going to fight to see it done.”
That’s why we’re working hard with our colleagues to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act this year. Medical aid in dying allows a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with six months or less to live to request prescription medication from their doctor they can take when their suffering becomes too great to bear and die peacefully. Ten states, along with Washington, D.C., including New York neighbors New Jersey and Vermont, authorize medical aid in dying.
A recent Marist poll shows strong support, 59-36 percent, for medical aid in dying among all New York voters, with majority support among Republicans, Democrats and independents, upstaters and downstaters, regardless of race or gender.
Let me leave you with this thought. I strongly believe that those dying from cancer or other terminal illness should have the opportunity to die in a way that is consistent with their faith, values, and beliefs.
Talk to a dying family member, friend, or neighbor. Trust me, it isn’t easy, particularly if they’re suffering. But listen to them and listen to how they want to live their final days and avoid suffering at the end. The choices they make may not be the choices I would make, but that’s as it should be: people choosing what’s right for them.
Passing the Medical Aid in Dying Act will not change the equation for those who wouldn’t choose this option. But it will allow those who want this compassionate option to die on their own terms, peacefully and free from suffering. All New Yorkers should be able to choose their own path at the end of their lives.
Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) is a co-sponsor of New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act.