State Senators Look to Introduce ‘Death With Dignity’ Legislation This Month

Brittany Maynard, who ended her life on November 1 under Oregon's Death With Dignity law. (Maynard family photo/thebrittanyfund.org)

Brittany Maynard, who ended her life on November 1 under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law. (Maynard family photo/thebrittanyfund.org)

After a terminally ill woman made headlines when she moved to Oregon so she could end her life under a doctor’s care, two State Senators are hoping to bring a similar law to New York.

“There are only five states in the country that allow for people to make end of life decisions similar to what Oregon does, and New York is not one of them,” State Senator Diane Savino told the Observer.

Brittany Maynard, 29, was suffering from brain cancer when she ended her life November 1 with a lethal dose of secobarbital prescribed by her physician. In New York, doing so would have put her doctor at risk of manslaughter charges, Ms. Savino said. She and State Senator Brad Hoylman want to change that with legislation Ms. Savino said they’d look to introduce by the end of the month.

“I was moved by Brittany’s story. I had seen her videos and felt compelled by the need, if I or any of my loved ones find themselves in a similar situation, to have that choice—and what a wonderful gift for her, that she was able to have a modicum of control over her end of life,” Mr. Hoylman told the Observer.

Mr. Hoylman, whose interest in the legislation was first reported by the Daily News, and Ms. Savino said the legislation would be modeled on the law in Oregon, a state Ms. Maynard moved to specifically so she could access its “Death With Dignity” law.

“What we’re looking to do is two things: amend the public health law in New York State to allow patients to make end of life decisions that make sense for them, and two, to inoculate doctors who choose to do this from prosecution,” Ms. Savino said.

A patient would need to have a terminal illness that was verified by more than one physician, and have a prognosis of fewer than six months. The patient would need to be found to be of sound mind in a mental competency hearing verified by another independent psychologist. If the patient met all the criteria, he or she could request in writing to be prescribed the lethal dose of medication.

“What we’ve found in other states that have this now is the vast majority of patients who elect to do so never use the prescription,” Ms. Savino said, but simply want to know they have that power over their illness. “They have some control over what is an uncontrollable situation.”

The senators are working with Compassion and Choices, the advocacy group that published a video of Maynard discussing her choice to move to Oregon and set a date for the end of her life that put her—and the issue of aid in dying legislation—in the spotlight late last year. The group is continuing to lobby on her behalf for similar laws nationwide, along with Maynard’s husband Dan Diaz, who this week gave his first interviews since his wife’s death. Compassion & Choices also lobbied on behalf of another priority of Ms. Savino’s—the medical marijuana law passed last year.

“Compassion & Choices, as Diane proved, is a terrific partner and has a lot of experience in the New York State legislature. That’s why I’m thrilled to partner with Sen. Savino on this issue,” Mr. Hoylman said, also noting Ms. Savino’s ties to leadership as a member of the Democratic Independent Conference.

Still, the legislation could face an uphill battle. Many religious groups strongly oppose such measures, and it’s unclear if it would find favor with leaders in the Senate, dominated by Republicans, and Assembly, or with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It’s very controversial because it makes people uncomfortable, it really does. I never run away from the uncomfortable,” Ms. Savino said. “But in passing I mentioned it to a couple of members and I was somewhat surprised to how supportive they were. There’s not a person who gets to the age of 30 in this world who doesn’t see, or hasn’t seen, someone they love suffer terribly.”

Mr. Hoylman too thought it would be possible to pass the legislation, saying the state had a “sophisticated electorate” and that they would work to educate colleagues on the need for the legislation.

“We’ll work on a bill that people are comfortable with, including the advocates, including groups that are concerned about making certain that there are adequate safeguards in the legislation, and address concerns like insurance and who makes these decisions and issues that are crucial to making certain that the process is not taken advantage of,” Mr. Hoylman said.

Similar legislation was passed by the New Jersey State Assembly, and Ms. Savino said she’d be watching the progress of the neighboring state closely. She’ll also take lessons from her lengthy push to pass medical marijuana, she said.

“Lesson number one: pay attention to your colleagues. Their opinions count,” she said. “Also, there’s a very distinct possibility that this could be a multi-year bill. I’m prepared for that.”