Physician-Assisted Suicide

Published on April 19th, 2021

Memorandum of Opposition

Re:  A4321-A Paulin
In relation to legalizing physician-assisted suicide

The above-referenced bill would add a new section of the Public Health Law to allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication for the express purpose of ending a patient’s life.

The New York State Catholic Conference opposes this bill for many reasons.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities of our current health care system. The virus has infected and killed thousands of our beloved elderly and has impacted low-income persons and persons of color at disproportionately high rates. Deaths from COVID-19 have taken well over half a million Americans and more than 50,000 New Yorkers.

Early on in this crisis, medical providers found themselves discussing the possible rationing of limited health care supplies, PPE and ventilators. They considered that decisions would need to be made about the ‘quality of life’ of various patients based on their age, their disabilities, their underlying medical condition and their co-morbidities. Rationing health care in such a partial, biased and unethical manner is a dangerous path to pursue.

We respectfully suggest that now is not the time for the state to enact this type of law, which can pose very real dangers of inequity, coercion, and abuse, particularly to the populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We believe that legalizing assisted suicide will lead to psychological, financial and other pressures for vulnerable persons to end their lives.

We agree with the unanimous conclusion of former Governor Mario Cuomo’s 1994 Task Force on Life & the Law which strongly cautioned against assisted suicide:

“No matter how carefully any guidelines are framed, assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and bias that characterizes the delivery of services in all segments of society, including health care. The practices will pose the greatest risks to those who are poor, elderly, members of a minority group or without access to good medical care. The growing concern about health care costs increases the risks. This cost consciousness will not be diminished, and may well be exacerbated, by health care reform.”

We have seen enough death during this pandemic. This is not the time to be encouraging more death, nor do we believe there will ever be an appropriate time to enact this legislation.

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would:

  • Blur longstanding medical, moral and legal distinctions between withdrawing extraordinary medical assistance and taking active steps to destroy human life. The former removes burdensome or useless treatments, allowing nature to take its course, and allowing the patient to either live or die. The latter is the deliberate and direct act of making a patient dead. In 2017, New York’s highest court said this distinction is “important, logical, and certainly rational,” adding that “it turns on intent.” (See Myers v. Schneiderman, September 7, 2017)
  • Undermine the physician’s role as healer, forever altering the doctor-patient relationship, and lessen the quality of care provided to patients at the end of life. Patients are best served when medical professionals, together with families and loved ones, provide support and care with dignity and respect, not lethal doses of drugs. The American Medical Association continues to hold a strong policy position against physician-assisted suicide, which they say is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role” and would be “difficult or impossible to control.”

This particular legislation contains many of the same fatal flaws contained in previous versions:

  • it does not require screening, testing, or treatment for clinical depression;
  • it requires a physician to list the underlying illness (and not the lethal drugs) as the cause of death, making it impossible to know how widely this form of suicide is being practiced, thus making it impossible to track abuses;
  • it contains absolutely no safeguards against coercion or abuse once the lethal drugs are in the patient’s possession; and
  • it contains no residency requirement, opening the door to out-of-state visitors obtaining deadly drugs here.

Rather than assisting suicide, we believe government should be consistent in its efforts to prevent suicide. It is illogical for the state to promote/facilitate suicide for one group of persons — calling the suicides of those with a terminal illness and a specific prognosis “dignified and humane,” while recognizing suicide as a serious statewide public health crisis in all other circumstances and spending enormous resources to combat it.

We urge the state to remove barriers and improve access to palliative care and hospice care for those in the final stages of terminal illness. Improved education and training of physicians in pain management, together with appropriate diagnosis and treatment for depression, would go a long way toward eliminating calls for suicide among the sick and the dying.

Without these changes, and with the enactment of this legislation, we believe there is serious risk that physician-assisted suicide will rise to the level of the most acceptable, and even expected, “treatment” for terminal illness. We urge you not to allow that to happen.

We strongly recommend opposition to this legislation.