Tuesday, June 4, 2024

New York Bar Association and Medical Society Ignore Dangers of Legalized Assisted Suicide

By Lisa Blumberg (pictured here).

The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) adopted a resolution in 2023 that supports the provisions of the assisted suicide bill before the legislature. This position is based on a report by its Task Force on Medical Aid in Dying. The report is extensive but seems more of defense of assisted suicide rather than a balanced inquiry into the myriad issues raised by its legalization.

During the summer last year, Not Dead Yet had learned of the NYSBA Task Force and requested an opportunity to speak to which the chair replied, “I'll be in touch a little later to settle on date for you to visit.” Sometime later, NDY inadvertently learned that David Leven, a leader in End of Life Choices New York, made a presentation to the Task Force. Rather than scheduling a comparable opportunity for opponents, the Task Force scheduled an open forum in November with a limited number of slots and did not notify the NY Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of doctors, disability advocates and other opponents of assisted suicide laws. By the time word reached the Alliance, only three speaking slots remained available, the rest (over 20) taken by proponents. Later in December, another panel of prominent assisted suicide advocates presented to the Task Force but, once again, no expert panel from the opposition.

In the resulting Task Force report, assisted suicide and palliative care are jumbled together as end-of-life care. Portions of the report read like a planning document for the implementation of assisted suicide if the bill is enacted. For example, it encourages lawmakers to mandate that insurers offer coverage for assisted suicide. (pp. 32-36)

The slant of the report is evident right from the beginning of the introduction which states:

To address the experience of some terminally ill people who suffer at the end of life, even with the support of hospice and palliative care, lawmakers have sought for more than 9 years to change the law in New York to allow these people to access an end-of-life option known as ‘medical aid in dying.’ Medical aid in dying is a medical practice that has now been adopted in 11 U.S. jurisdictions that allow a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with a prognosis of six months or less to live to request from their doctor a prescription for medication they can decide to self-ingest to die peacefully in their sleep. (Italics mine for emphasis.)

With such value laden and highly debatable statements in the report, it is little wonder that the association decided as it did. However, they did not set a very good example for the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY).

In April at its annual House of Delegates meeting, the MSSNY voted in a policy change that states “MSSNY supports legislation such as the medical aid in dying act and supports physicians’ choice to opt-in or decline to engage in the processes and procedures as outlined in any proposed medical aid in dying legislation.” While the medical societies of several states have taken a stance of so-called engaged neutrality in regard to assisted suicide, no other state medical society has come out in affirmative support of its legalization.

There seems to be nothing on the MSSNY website which provides a rationale for its position. In fact, due to sloppy drafting of the resolution, its position is unclear. The phrase “legislation such as the medical aid in dying act” can be interpreted in various ways. Does the MSSNY just support the assisted suicide bill that is currently before the New York legislature or does it support any “medical aid in dying” bill that New York might consider in the future, including one that would allow voluntary euthanasia? (Proponents are increasingly using “aid in dying” as an umbrella term to refer to assisted suicide and euthanasia.) Or would it support a bill that openly includes chronic conditions and disabilities as eligible? Most doctors are not lawyers! Despite the ambiguity though, the New York Bar Association has commended the MSSNY for its position.

The MSSNY policy change does indicate that a doctor can opt-out, i.e., decline to engage in whatever it is the legislature legalizes as “aid in dying”. However, doctors can always decide what is beyond their realm. My dermatologist simply won’t give me advice on how to handle a cold. The fact that the MSSNY explicitly recognizes an opt-out right implies that there is something about assisted suicide that is professionally problematic, something outside of what doctors would ordinarily be doing. Regardless, the doctors who opt out are protected, but that does nothing to protect patients from mistakes, coercion and abuse.

It was New York’s highest court in 2017 which, by listening to all sides in regard to a proposed constitutional right to assisted suicide, drew the distinctions that should be made. They got it right when they stated, the “potential danger[s] of this dramatic change in public policy would outweigh any benefit that might be achieved.”

The MSSNY and the New York Bar Association should have taken their cues from them.