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Editorial: Legislature must act to help the terminally ill

The New York Court of Appeals has dealt a blow to the aid-in-dying movement by determining that state law is clear and prohibits anyone, including doctors, from assisting in ending a life. That leaves it up to the State Legislature and governor to act.

They should examine the issue, consider how aid in dying has operated in other states, then craft a law to provide relief for terminally ill and suffering patients while ensuring there are safeguards against abuses.

The case should not have had to go to court, but advocates believed they had no other choice. They tried without success to persuade lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow physicians to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients.

The case was brought by three terminally ill people from New York City, two of whom have since died, along with several physicians and a group called End of Life.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, and some groups representing disabled people strenuously object to aid in dying. Their arguments include what they believe is the difficulty it would create for health care professionals and institutions that would have to inform terminally ill patients of the option to end their lives. And they believe that this would force religious health care facilities to close.

Those representing the disabled have argued that some terminal diagnoses prove to be incorrect, and cite possible pressure by the health care industry, for-profit insurers, managed care agencies and even relatives for terminally ill patients to make the decision to end their lives.

The inevitability of life is that death will follow. For some, death comes in the form of excruciating and unrelenting pain. It is an ordeal for patients and families.
Terminally ill patients in such pain should have the opportunity hasten their deaths while they are fully cognizant to choose. None of this should occur without proper safeguards, and that is exactly what advocates for aid in dying sought.

The plaintiffs’ appeal asked the court to declare that New Yorkers had a constitutional right that would permit doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs “to a mentally competent and terminally ill patient,” as News Albany bureau chief Tom Precious wrote.

The high court decided otherwise: “Aid-in-dying falls squarely within the ordinary meaning of the statutory prohibition on assisting a suicide. The assisted-suicide statutes apply to anyone who assists an attempted or completed suicide. There are no exceptions.”

It couldn’t be clearer. If terminally ill patients are to have the ability to choose a peaceful end rather than one wracked by pain, the Legislature will have to take up the issue.

They only have to look for guidance to the six states and the District of Columbia that allow some level of physician assistance for terminally ill people who want to end their lives. As others have done, New York should create certain stipulations to limit possible abuses, such as mandatory waiting times and the requirement that two physicians determine that a patient is terminal and mentally competent enough to make this difficult decision.

Legislators can show their compassion by writing a law that allows terminally ill patients in great pain to choose to hasten their end and die with some measure of dignity.

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