Aid in Dying Advocates Bring Petitions to Gov. Cuomo

Oct 5, 2017

People who say the terminally ill should have a legal option to end their lives with medical aid presented petitions to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday, asking that he and the legislature make that change.

Nancy Murphy holds petitions to be delivered to Gov. Cuomo. Her 86-year-old sister lived in Vermont, and used that state's aid in dying law when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in June.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WXXI News

About 7,500 attendees at the New York State Fair signed the petition, which asks that “a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less” to live be permitted the option to obtain medication to end their lives if “their suffering becomes unbearable.”

Corinne Carey, the organizer of the group, known as Compassion and Choices New York, gave the petitions to Cuomo’s top counsel, Alphonso David, who graciously accepted them.

Along with the petitions, supporters brought their personal stories, including Nancy Murphy, who lives in in Northern New York. Her sister lived across the border in Vermont, where aid in dying is legal. In June, the 86-year-old was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer.

"That day, in the doctor’s office, when she got the diagnosis she said ‘I want to use the law’,” Murphy said. “She was clear in her mind as to what she wanted to do.”

Murphy says in August, she and other friends and relatives held a special ceremony to honor her sister, that included a champagne toast, moments before she took a lethal dose of morphine.

“Each one of the family were able to say good bye to her,” said Murphy. “We handed her the little vials of morphine, and she drank them.”

Murphy says within twenty minutes, her sister was asleep.  She died two hours later.

Opponents of the practice, which they call assisted suicide, include the Catholic Church and some groups that support those with disabilities. Kathleen Gallagher, with the Catholic conference says she believes it’s “dangerous to many vulnerable populations here in New York”.

Including the elderly, people with disabilities, the  poor,” Gallagher said.

She says last year, parishioners in just one Catholic diocese in the state, in Rochester, delivered over 12,000 signatures to Governor Cuomo opposing the concept.

Advocate Gene Hughes gives signed petitions to Governor Cuomo's counsel Alphonso David.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WXXI News

Gallagher says the views of the church are bolstered by a September 6th  ruling by New York’s highest court. Three terminally ill New Yorkers brought the suit in 2015, saying that the ban violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the state’s constitution.   The seven judges who took part in the case before the Court of Appeals all agreed that there is no constitutional right to using lethal doses of medication to hasten a terminally ill person’s death. They found that New York “has a rational basis for criminalizing assisted suicide”.  

“They said things like preventing suicide is a serious public health problem,” Gallagher said. “And what message would it send to say some suicides are legitimate.”

Gallagher says the court also expressed concerns that the lethal dose of medications brought into the home could fall into the wrong hands and be misused.

The judges said that the Governor and legislature do have the power, though, to create a law permitting the practice.

Carey, with Compassion and Choices, says the court decision was not a setback, and she believes  lawmakers can craft a measure to protect the vulnerable. And she says New York’s proposal is based on laws in five other states, where there have been no reports of misuse of the law.

Many health care professionals have now recognized that  this is one part of continuum of comprehensive end of life care,” Carey said.

She says in states where the practice is legal most people with terminal illnesses do not take the option, but say it is a comfort to know that they could.