Is aid-in-dying right for New York?

Jan 9, 2017

Susan Rahn's doctors first discovered cancer in her back a few years ago. They traced its to her breast, and she's now at Stage 4 - a terminal diagnosis. Rahn changes her medication every three months to fight the pain.


"The pain is going to at some point get substantially worse as the cancer progresses," Rahn said. "Because it's eventually going to get into a vital organs: my lungs or my liver or my brain."

Rahn said she's doing okay right now, but thinks it's only a matter of time. Since her diagnosis, her family has made a point of spending meaningful time together, like traveling to New York City, seeing a Broadway play, and meeting the actor Bryan Cranston. For Rahn, a painful or drug-clouded death would erase those good memories. She's seen fellow cancer victims die in agony, and doesn't want her son to see that.

"I am not going to have him watch that process. It's not gonna happen. I'm not doing that to him," she said.

Option vs. Opening

'Aid-in-dying' legislation would let doctors prescribe life-ending drugs to mentally-competent, terminally-ill patients. Advocates have seen success around the country in the last few years, most recently in Colorado and Washington, D.C. New York is often mentioned as one of the next battlegrounds.

But the effort has significant opposition. What Susan Rahn sees as an option, others see as a dangerous opening.

Emily Papperman works at Ithaca's Finger Lakes Independence Center. FLIC works to make the world more inclusive for people with disabilities and to help them live more independently. 

Papperman herself has spastic cerebral palsy. "My muscles can tighten up without warning, when I'm [scared or] surprised or when it's cold out," she said."Yay, upstate New York winters!"

Finger Lakes Independence Center board member Erin Vallely (left) and advocacy specialist Emily Papperman are opposed to legalized aid in dying in New York State.
Credit Bret Jaspers/WSKG News

Papperman and her colleagues are worried doctors or family members will influence vulnerable people, intentionally or unintentionally, to choose the life-ending drugs. 

The legalization proposal in New York limits the drugs: only people with terminal illnesses can get a prescription, and they must self-administer the dose. But Papperman said people with disabilities have fought hard for their autonomy. She doesn't trust the safeguards in the law will protect them.

"I think there are too many things that could still be misconstrued or misinterpreted," she said.

FLIC board member Erin Vallely doesn't want aid in dying to be presented as the option that's "easier on everyone." To her, "there's so many medical advances coming out all the time. There's always something that you can do."

Another opponent is the Catholic Church. Lisa Hall at the Archdiocese of Syracuse said in an email, "to the Catholic way of thinking, every suicide is tragic." 

Hall also echoed Papperman's concerns about coercion.

In Oregon, aid in dying has been legal for almost 20 years, and coercion hasn't come up. "We have years and years of data and study after study published in peer-reviewed journals that demonstrate that those type of things don't happen," said Peg Sandeen, Executive Director with the group Death with Dignity.

A spokesman with the Oregon Health Authority said there have not, to their knowledge, been any cases of coercion. The Authority also does not know of any physician sanctioned for coercion by the Oregon Medical Board.

The Push In New York

Both sides will make their case to New York lawmakers in Albany this session. 

A bill to legalize aid in dying passed an Assembly Committee last year. Corinne Carey, New York State Campaign Director for the advocacy group Compassion and Choices, said the goal this year is to get a vote from the full Assembly.

"Do I think that we will move to the Senate this year? It's New York. Anything could happen. But I know the work in front of us and I think that this is a multi-year campaign," she said.

Any legislative effort in New York has to go through the Assembly speaker, Senate leader and the governor. None have taken a public position, according to Carey. 

Rahn's target is Governor Cuomo. If she can tell him her story, she's hoping to convince him that the terminally-ill need this choice.

"I didn't have a choice in having this disease. I wasn't given the option," she said. "But I do have a say and I do have an option in how I leave this earth."

And to get that option, Rahn said, she's willing to move away from her New York home.