THE BLOG

Is Aid in Dying a Civil Right Long Overdue?

02/05/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

New York state is 18 years behind in offering terminally ill patients the legal right -- and comfort -- to make autonomous decisions about how to die when suffering intolerably from terminal disease.

Sara Myers has ALS, paralyzing her body inch by inch. while her mental faculties - and sense of humor - are still sharp. Today, she proudly announced at a press conference with prominent New York physicians and the Disability Rights Legal Center, "I am suing the state of New York!"

Myers has been advocating for two years to remove the legal barrier between her doctor and herself to allow her to choose a peaceful and dignified death in New York. The 60-year-old professional woman smiled at me and quipped, "Then along came someone younger and prettier than me!"

Brittany Maynard made headlines around the world when the 29-year-old bride announced last summer that her terminal brain cancer would cause her a horrible death. She and her husband and family had to move from her home state of California to Oregon, the first of four states to legalize this compassionate end of life choice, including Washington, Vermont and Montana.

Like Maynard, Myers wants to be able to gather her loved ones around her and bid them good-bye while she can still breathe and speak. At this point in her testimony at today's press conference, she choked up, and mumbled, "I hate crying -- instead of taking a Xanax."

The act of taking physician-prescribed barbiturates to escape the hell of mental obliteration or choking to death has been branded "assisted suicide," but these patients say not a single part of them wants to die. The irrefutable fact of an incurable illness is that dying is not far off. The alternatives are not pretty: to refuse food or water and endure the wracking pain of organs shutting down over the usual period of ten days. Or, as an opponent of aid in dying suggested to Myers: "You could run your wheelchair and yourself into the path of a speeding cab."

The lawsuit argues that the choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death is not "suicide," and the physician assisting her is not "assisting suicide." Dr. Timothy Quill, one of the pioneers of palliative care and Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at University of Rochester, says the choice offers many patients peace of mind.

How many people would be impacted by legalization of aid in dying?

Tens of thousands who face end of life, said David Leven, executive director of End of Life Choices in New York.

How many act on it?

One of six dying patients discusses aid in dying with their family. One in 50 discusses aid in dying with their doctor. But here's the kicker:

Of the prescriptions filled by dying patients in Oregon, all receive the comfort of having a choice. But over 18 years, one-third never choose to take the medication.

"But for a small number who do, it empowers them to achieve a dignified and peaceful death at a time of their own choosing," says Dr. Quill.

Dr. Quill was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, Vacco v. Quill. The Court declined to rule, and sent it back to the states to decide.