By Corinne Carey
Last March, Bernadette Hoppe, attorney, activist and lifelong Buffalo resident, a University at Buffalo classmate of mine and a dear friend, passed away after living and suffering for several years with cancer.
Two weeks ago, with Bernadette on my mind, I participated in a debate about New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act, legislation pending in Albany that would give terminally ill adults like Bernadette the option to peacefully end their suffering when no other health care option (like hospice or palliative care) provides enough relief. It gives the dying person sole authority to request it, leaving this deeply personal decision to the dying person, their family and doctor.
The debate included former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco. He argued the landmark case, Vacco v. Quill, when the Supreme Court in 1997 declined to recognize a constitutional right to medical aid-in-dying, but invited individual states to address the issue.
Vacco made no new arguments nor offered any evidence to show why New York should not join nine other states (including our neighbors New Jersey and Vermont) and Washington, D.C., in authorizing this compassionate option. He repeated the same tired, long-refuted arguments that opponents use to stoke fear about the bill; the same arguments made a quarter century ago, before the nation’s first medical aid-in-dying law took effect in Oregon in 1997.
Opponents today act as if we don’t have more than 20 years of data to show these laws safeguard patient autonomy. They act like we don’t have an ever-increasing number of real stories from people like Bernadette who suffered needlessly at the end of life.
Studies have consistently shown no legally documented evidence of coercion or abuse – absolutely none – or that these laws negatively impact anyone, regardless of age, race, religion, gender, income or physical ability.
The decisions that terminally ill New Yorkers make right now are often tragic. Too few take advantage of hospice and far too many who cannot bear their suffering take their own lives in violent ways, leaving emergency responders, families and friends to face the traumatic results.
In her final weeks, Bernadette sought – sadly unsuccessfully – to meet with her state legislators to urge them to support the Medical Aid in Dying Act. She didn’t want others to suffer as she did.
Now, state legislators have the power to fulfill Bernadette’s dying wishes. They can give New Yorkers an important end-of-life care option that has overwhelming public support (63-29% in according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll).
Decisions about death belong to the dying, their doctors, loved ones and faith leaders. New York lawmakers: Pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act in 2020. Do it for Bernadette. Do it for your family, friends and neighbors. Do it for your constituents. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Corinne Carey is the New York senior campaign director for Compassion & Choices and a 1998 graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Law.