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Editorial: Terminally ill should have access to help in ending their suffering

Most of us live with a clear-eyed understanding that in this life, death is inevitable. But for some patients at death’s doorstep, excruciating and unrelenting pain make their final days pure torture.

Frustrated by their inability to persuade state lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow physicians to aid in the process, advocates for “aid in dying” are trying a different approach.

As News Albany bureau chief Tom Precious wrote, those advocates, including three terminally ill patients, went to court, hoping judges would step in where the Legislature hasn’t. Each side in Tuesday’s oral arguments before the state Court of Appeals in Albany made compelling points.

Representing the state, the deputy solicitor general insisted that the case be dismissed because the Legislature has already enacted a “bright line prohibition” against the act of someone assisting in another’s suicide.

Opponents believe any action to hasten the inevitable is wrong and immoral. But then there are the stories of suffering, such as that endured by three terminally ill patients from New York City who brought the case in 2015.

Two of those patients have since died. Their supporters, including several physicians and End of Life Choices New York, an advocacy group, were dealt a blow when a Supreme Court judge and later an appellate court dismissed the case.

The appellate court unanimously ruled last year and essentially offered that “physician aid in dying” results in an unlawful assistance in someone’s suicide. The court maintained that the broader constitutional claims being argued in the New York case had already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Advocates took the case to the state’s highest court, saying that the rights of terminally ill people are being violated. They want to know why those who are mentally competent up until the end cannot have any say over how they die. This is not a suicide in the usual sense, they say; it’s the hastening of an inevitable death. As Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera said in questioning the defendants, the state already allows terminally ill patients to be sedated and deprived of nourishment until they die.

The Catholic Church insists that health care professionals and institutions will be put in an untenable position if they are mandated to inform terminally ill patients of the option to end their lives. They believe that this would force religious health care facilities to close.

Groups representing disabled people, including one called Not Dead, point out that some terminal diagnoses prove to be incorrect. Moreover, the health care industry and for-profit insurers and managed care agencies have their own priorities that, they say, could pressure patients to decide to end their lives.

Six states and the District of Columbia, along with Canada, already allow some level of physician assistance for terminally ill patients who choose to die. Terminally ill New Yorkers in intractable pain deserve the same opportunity under carefully considered guidelines.

In New York, the decision is now in the hands of the Court of Appeals. Regardless of the court’s ruling, the governor and Legislature should look at how aid in dying has worked in other states and craft a law that will provide relief for a few terminally ill, suffering patients while guarding against abuses.

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