National News

NY Lawmakers Are Backing Assisted Suicide Legislation Catholic Bishops Call ‘Dangerous’

Reflecting pool on Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, with New York State Capitol building, Albany, Albany County, Upstate New York, USA. Capitol served as seat of NY government since 1880s. Built 1867-99 by architects Thomas Fuller, Leopold Eidlitz, Henry Hobson Richardson and Isaac G. Perry.

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — While New York legislators argue that assisted suicide legislation would allow terminally ill patients to die with dignity, the state’s Catholic bishops on March 5 countered that it would put the state on a “dangerous path that contaminates medicine and turns the notion of compassion on its head.”

Introduced in the New York State Senate in January 2023, the “Medical Aid in Dying Act” would allow terminally ill patients — those with an incurable or irreversible condition that will result in death within six months —  to request medication to end their life.

Similar versions of the bill have been introduced and failed in the New York Senate over the years. This latest version is sponsored by Democrat Brad Hoylman-Sigal and is co-sponsored by 22 other Democrat senators. There are 63 state senators in New York.

The New York State Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the New York bishops, in their March 5 statement against the legislation argued that the practice of assisted suicide is wrong, and that this bill in particular does not contain adequate safeguards.

Dennis Poust, the executive director of the conference, highlighted that the bill forces physicians to “knowingly lie” on patients’ death certificates because it mandates that the underlying illness be listed as the cause of death, not the assisted suicide medication. Poust also noted that the bill does not require the patient go through a mental health evaluation, and instead only happens if ordered by the doctor.

“Well-researched euphemisms and poll-driven rhetoric won’t change reality,” Poust said. “This idea would start New York State on a dangerous path that contaminates medicine and turn the notion of compassion on its head.”

Poust’s statement comes at a time when assisted suicide legislation has become prominent nationwide. Minnesota, Massachusetts, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Florida, and Tennessee are all states considering some form of assisted suicide legislation, drawing the ire of Catholic leaders. On March 4, Virginia lawmakers defeated an assisted suicide bill.

Assisted suicide is currently legal in 9 states — California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Maine, New Jersey, Hawaii, Washington — and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Canada has some of the most permissive assisted suicide laws worldwide. Canada’s law was already expanded in 2021 to include patients with a chronic illness, in addition to those with a terminal illness, and it will expand again in 2027 to include people suffering solely from mental illness.

The New York bill would require the patient to make an oral request and submit a written request that must be signed and dated by the patient and witnessed by two adults who aren’t the patient’s attending physician, consulting physician, or mental health professional. The patient can also rescind the request at any time.

It also stipulates that the patient’s physician must refer the patient to a mental health professional if they determine the patient may lack decision-making capacity. If the mental health professional determines that they don’t, the patient will not qualify for assisted suicide.

The bill also protects health care professionals from civil or criminal liability, or professional disciplinary action by any government entity for “taking any reasonable good-faith action or refusing to act.” 

That includes engaging in conversations with the patient about the risks and benefits of end-of-life options, referring them to another health care provider, being present when the patient administers the medication, or refraining from acting to prevent the patient from taking the medication.

Health care professionals will also not be required under law to participate in providing the medication, according to the proposed bill’s text.

A “justification” section of the bill’s summary states that assisted suicide is a patient’s right.

“These patients, when mentally competent, should be afforded this right. Patients should not be forced to relocate to another state or to leave the country to control how their lives end,” the bill summary states. “Patients seek to die with dignity, on their own terms, typically in their own homes, surrounded by their family and other loved ones.”

Poust, meanwhile, said legislators should pursue alternatives.

“New York State should instead focus on improving palliative care, which is woefully underutilized and provides true compassion and death with dignity to those at the end of life,” Poust said.