We Have the Right to Live Our Lives with Dignity and to Die with Dignity As Well
It wasn’t a scream. It wasn’t a cry. It was this penetrating moan. It was a moan that never stopped. That had no end. And you could tell that this was her refrain. This was her chorus all day. That was how she lived her final days, in a Brooklyn hospital, before she died.
While I have the honor and privilege of representing several great Brooklyn communities in the State Assembly, I am also a Registered Nurse, and sadly have heard those moans from too many dying New Yorkers.
Within the last year, I’ve witnessed life at both ends of the spectrum with two of the great loves of my life. My son was born a year ago this month – he’s walking and talking up a storm now – a precious new life, who has forever changed who I am. And nobody has helped shape me more than the first love of my life, my father, who died last October. I saw that I had to fight for the dignity of both – as they came into this life and as they exited this life.
I think everyone can agree that all of our fellow New Yorkers deserves to live their lives with dignity. And while there may not be unanimity that New Yorkers should also be able to die with dignity, a strong majority of us support New York becoming the 11th state to authorize medical aid in dying.
Medical aid in dying allows a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with six months or less to live to request a prescription from their doctor they can take when their suffering becomes too great to bear so that they can die peacefully.
Shortly after I was first elected to the Assembly three years ago, advocates began to educate me about New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act (A.995/S.2445), although as a nurse I was certainly familiar with the concept of medical aid in dying and that it was legal in other states, like New Jersey and Vermont, for example.
Some have asked me whether I’m afraid that people of color – who have historically and rightly been skeptical of a health care system that has too often treated Caribbean Americans, African Americans and Latinos, as second-class citizens – would be adversely affected by medical aid in dying. And the answer is very simply, no.
Far from endangering the lives of Black and Brown people, the option of medical aid in dying empowers us. There is power in charting one’s own end-of-life journey. We should all have the ability to die in a way that is consistent with our faith, values and beliefs.
All New Yorkers deserve to the power to direct their own health care decisions throughout their adult lives. And those suffering at the end of life, when death is imminent, deserve the power to determine when their suffering becomes too great.
Studies show that while few people use the medication, countless others gain peace of mind knowing that there is a way to avoid needless suffering at the end of life. These studies also show that there has never been a single substantiated instance of abuse, coercion, or misuse in the more than two decades these laws have been in effect.
That is why so many New Yorkers, including a broad and diverse array of civic organizations across the state are working to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act into law this year, and that’s why I’m cosponsoring this critical legislation.
The moans I’ve heard from those dying New Yorkers will stay with me forever. If I can help end the suffering for those who are dying and help their final words to be ‘I love you’ to a spouse or family member, rather than a penetrating moan, then I have done the right thing, and I have done a good thing.
Phara Souffrant Forrest, a lifelong Brooklynite, represents the 57th Assembly District (Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and parts of Bedford Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights) in the New York State Assembly.