Terminally Ill New Yorkers Shouldn’t Have to Suffer Needlessly At Life’s End; There’s a Peaceful, Loving Alternative

By Rev. Charles McNeill | February 15, 2024

As a pastor, it is my duty to guide my flock. As a former police officer, I took an oath to serve and protect. And as a veteran, it was my honor to put my life on the line for the country I love. It is in my very nature to preserve life, but not at all costs.

As a result of my life experiences, I have become familiar with the faces of death and what happens when you are not prepared for it. I believe death without unnecessary suffering should be everyone’s goal. That’s why I was honored to join other clergy and other advocates at the state Capitol in Albany to talk to legislators and urge them to pass New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act.

Medical aid in dying allows a mentally capable, terminally ill adult – defined as an irreversible and incurable disease or illness – with six months or less to live to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they could decide to take if their suffering becomes unbearable and die peacefully in their sleep. Medical aid in dying is currently authorized in 10 states, including New York’s neighbors, New Jersey and Vermont, and Washington D.C.

As an African American working to improve my community’s lack of access to quality healthcare, I was initially skeptical about medical aid in dying. That’s why I researched and studied this issue for years before deciding to support it.

People of color need equal access to quality healthcare. There are historic and current disparities in health care that must be addressed, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer to name a few. But that’s not a reason to fear medical aid in dying. Medical aid in dying doesn’t kill people; it simply allows the transition for terminally ill individuals who are suffering intolerably to be smoother and more peaceful.

Let’s look at the evidence. A 2019 University of Pittsburgh School of Law report concluded the experience in the numerous states and Washington, D.C., where medical aid in dying is authorized, “puts to rest most of the arguments that opponents of authorization have made — or at least those that can be settled by empirical data. The most relevant data — namely, those relating to the traditional and more contemporary concerns that opponents of legalization have expressed — do not support and, in fact, dispel the concerns of opponents.”

Under New York’s legislation, participating in medical aid in dying would be 100% voluntary for everyone: terminally ill patients, doctors, and pharmacists. I respect people who oppose medical aid in dying because of their faith, religious, or spiritual values. But they should respect people with differing faiths, religious, and spiritual values who need and/or support this peaceful dying option.

As the Bible says in the Book of Luke 6:37-42: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” We must all be allowed to follow our faith and values and God gives us all the freedom to choose for ourselves – not for others.

Medical aid in dying is completely different from people who want to take their lives prematurely because they are depressed. You can treat depression, but you can’t treat incurable, terminal diseases. The terminally ill people who want to have this option to die peacefully would much rather live, but that option is off the table for them.

A few simple but telling facts from the nine jurisdictions that have released reports detailing the utilization of medical aid-in-dying laws. More than one-third (37%) of the people who qualify for and get aid-in-dying medication don’t take it. This group consists of people who die from their underlying illness, another cause of death, or an unreported cause of death. And the people who do take it wait an average of 30 days after first requesting it to take it, according to the Oregon Health Authority, the only jurisdiction that compiles this statistic.

You see, for many, just having access to the medication provides great relief because they know they can take it if their suffering becomes intolerable. It allows them to live their final days as fully and worry-free as possible with their loved ones.

Medical aid in dying doesn’t cause more deaths because the terminally ill people who want this option are already dying. It just results in less needless suffering at life’s end. As a person of deep and unwavering faith, I believe this is an offering of love and peace for those who are dying.

New Yorkers have consistently said they want the option. A YouGov poll of New Yorkers last month showed overwhelming support for medical aid in dying – 72-23% – including strong majorities of Black, white, Latino, and Asian voters, Democrats, Republicans and independents, Catholics, Protestants, residents of other faiths as well as residents with no religion, and residents of every region of the state.

The people have spoken; it’s time for legislators to vote.

It’s time for them to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act and show love and compassion for the people they represent by providing them with the option to die peacefully in their sleep, at home, surrounded by their loved ones.

Rev. Charles McNeill is president of the National Capital Baptist Convention.