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Terminally ill people in 10 states can choose assisted death, but not in NY. Advocates want a change

A grouping of yellow lit candles on a blue and gold tabletop.
Compassion and Choices
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Advocates for the Medical Aid in Dying Act in New York held a candlelight ceremony for people with terminal illnesses who have died during the seven years of lobbying for the bill to become law.

Advocates of a measure to permit terminally ill people to request medication to end their lives say it’s long past time for New York to join 10 other states and allow the practice.

The bill, known as the Medical Aid in Dying Act, was first introduced in the state legislature in 2016. It allows a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with six months or less to live to get a prescription from their doctor for medication that they can take when their suffering becomes too great to bear.

Corinne Carey, who has led the lobbying effort for the past seven years, says many of the advocates she has worked with were themselves terminally ill, and because the measure has been stalled in the Senate and Assembly, did not get to die peaceful deaths.

The group, Compassion and Choices, recently held a candlelight ceremony at the Capitol to honor 22 of those advocates.

“More than 20 amazing advocates who walked these halls, who organized in their communities, gathered petition signatures and built support for this bill,” Carey said. “They died by being ignored by those in power.”

Daren Eilert lit a candle for his 24-year-old daughter, Ayla Rain Eilert, who died from metastatic tongue cancer on April 2. Eilert says his daughter, a ballet dancer, endured months of pain from treatments, but when the cancer spread through her neck and closed up her throat, she begged for help in ending her life.

Eilert says while he’s from New Jersey, where aid in dying is legal, his daughter lived in New York and did not have that option. Eilert says he and his wife tried to distract their daughter from her pain by telling her stories.

Daren Eilert and his wife stand next to photos of their daughter, Aila Rain Eilert, who died in April from metastatic tongue cancer.
Compassion and Choices
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Daren Eilert and his wife stand next to photos of their daughter, Aila Rain Eilert, who died in April from metastatic tongue cancer.

Lindsay Wright moved from New York City to Portland Oregon with her husband, Youssef Cohen, in 2016. He had late stage mesothelioma and wanted to be in a state where aid in dying was legal. Oregon passed a law more than a quarter century ago.

“We moved 3000 miles across the county,” Cohen said. “Why? Because New York didn’t offer that option in 2016 and still doesn’t. And I think it’s an outrage.”

Oregon is one of ten states, along with Washington, D.C., that authorizes medical aid in dying.

Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a sponsor of New York’s bill, says watching her sister die a slow and painful death from cancer motivated her to back the measure.

Senate sponsor Diane Savino has carried the bill for six years, and is now retiring from the Senate. But she says she intends to stay involved.

“This certainly is not the last time I’ll participate as a New Yorker,” Savino said. “But damn it, I’d like to get this down before this legislative term.”

The measure has more than 70 co-sponsors in the Senate and Assembly, but has yet to advance out of committee in 2022.

Polls show that New Yorkers support the measure. A recent Marist College poll finds most New Yorkers support the measure at 59-36 percent, with majority backing among Republicans, Democrats and independents, as well as upstate and downstate, regardless of race or gender.

Opponents include the Catholic Church, who say it is morally wrong to end one's life, and some disability rights advocates, who worry it could be used to hasten the deaths of severely disabled individuals.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.