Religious leaders from several faith traditions gathered today at the Capitol to hold a first-ever New York faith gathering to urge passage of the Medical Aid in Dying Act (S.3151/A.2383), which would provide terminally ill, mentally competent adult New Yorkers with the legal right to request a prescription to bring about a peaceful death.
The religious leaders – who spend countless hours comforting dying parishioners and their families – participating in the faith gathering were:
Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green, Jr., Senior Pastor, Mount Neboh Baptist Church of Harlem and
President, Mobilizing Preachers & Communities (MPAC)
Rabbi Dr. David Gordis, Visiting Senior Scholar, University at Albany
Rev. Valerie Ross, Senior Community Minister, Judson Memorial Church, Greenwich Village
Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert, Retired Minister, First Unitarian Church, Rochester
Father Luis Barrios, Episcopalian Priest in Charge, Holyrood Episcopal Church/Iglesia
Episcopal Santa Cruz, Upper West Side, Manhattan
If the Medical Aid in Dying Act is enacted, it would allow New York to join six other states – Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, and Colorado – in allowing residents this end-of-life option. Oregon’s law has been on the books, without any adverse impacts, for two decades. A law to legalize aid in dying has also been passed in Washington, D.C.
Support for medical aid in dying is overwhelming and growing. LifeWay Research (Biblical Solutions for Life) released a national survey in December 2016 finding 69 percent of Americans agree that, “Physicians should be allowed to assist terminally ill patients in ending their life.” Nationally, 60 percent of Christians and 70 percent of Catholics support allowing physicians to assist terminally ill patients end their lives.
Support is even stronger in New York. A September 2015 poll of New Yorkers, commissioned by Compassion & Choices, found 77 percent support for allowing a terminally ill, mentally competent adult the option to request aid in dying medication. Broken down by religious affiliation, 83 percent of Jewish voters and 74 percent of both Catholics and Protestants support medical aid in dying.
During the gathering, which included many other supporters of medical aid in dying, the faith leaders expressed compassion for New Yorkers who have died and those who are living with a terminal illness. They shared heartwarming stories about end-of-life perspectives and experiences from some of their congregants. They expressed support for allowing all New Yorkers to make end-of-life decisions – including choosing medical aid in dying – that are consistent with their own faiths, beliefs, and values.
Rev. Green said: “Preachers across New York spend a great deal of time helping comfort individuals and families during illness and death. We are the ones called to the bedside to witness the suffering of dying people and their families. Talking about death and dying, particularly in African American communities, is too often taboo, and we need to change that. Opening up honest conversations about how people want to be cared for at the end of their lives is something we have to do, and that’s why I support legislation that would allow people the freedom to make their own decisions about death and dying, guided by their own faith.”
Rabbi Gordis said: “Our religious traditions embody a range of views on death and dying. A paramount principle for me is that we have an obligation to reduce suffering when we can. At the most personal and inevitable point in life, the approach of the end of life, it should be the prerogative of the individual to decide how to deal with the physical and emotional challenges we all face. The law should protect that prerogative and not impose the values of others, religious or political, on the freedom of the individual to make those decisions.”
Rev. Ross said: “Everybody dies. I have spent hours comforting the dying and their families, and while heartbreaking it is also often heartwarming. For some, death is simple. For others, death is made more difficult by a lack of systemic compassion in our legal systems. We protect people who are ready to go, often for reasons we don’t fully understand. Making more compassionate laws around dying helps everybody. It gives us the comfort we need from our society and our governments. New York has been a leader before. Why not again?”
Rev. Gilbert said: “As people of faith we understand death to be a part of life. Sometimes it is friend, not enemy. All of us have been at the bedside along with families of dying people who simply wish the end that they know is coming to be peaceful. Sometimes it is not peaceful. The last right of a human being is the right to die with dignity. As has been said, ‘The body should be the temple of the soul and not its prison.’ ”
Father Barrios said: “I don’t have a problem with the notion of death, because death is a part of life. It’s how we face it and the way we go through the dying process that makes a difference. And while everyone’s dying process is different, for some, it is a death process that is unnecessarily painful, punishing or protracted. In those cases, people should have the ability to bring themselves to a peaceful death.”
Corinne Carey, Compassion & Choices NY campaign director, said: “The Medical Aid in Dying Act safeguards freedom of religion for New Yorkers because it allows all of us to make our own decisions based on our own faith and beliefs. The bill includes strong protections of conscience that will ensure that no one who is dying can be compelled to ask for aid in dying, and no doctor can be forced to prescribe the medication. Authorizing this important end-of-life option will not jeopardize the rights of those who believe that aid in dying is wrong for them because of their faith beliefs; however, denying the right to seek aid in dying because some object on the basis of faith would infringe on the rights of those who do not share those religious beliefs.”
Senator Diane Savino (IDC-Staten Island) said: “Today’s faith gathering is the next step in our fight to bring Aid in Dying to New Yorkers. Aid in Dying is not something everyone would choose, but it’s a choice everyone should have, no matter how or where you worship. I’m a Catholic, and my faith is important to me, but allowing patients, their families and doctors to discuss a safe and compassionate way to end their suffering is important to me and millions of New Yorkers. I am so proud of the religious leaders today who are voicing their support for Aid in Dying, and I want to thank them for coming to Albany to let elected officials in on a little secret – when an issue is supported by more than 80 percent of New Yorkers, it’s not controversial to support it, it’s common sense.”
Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said: “End of life decisions, like religion, are deeply personal and shouldn’t be subject to government control. New York needs to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act to provide mentally-competent individuals with a terminal diagnosis the freedom to control the terms of their death. It is especially important that Albany acts now in the face of a new federal administration and a Supreme Court pick that questions whether we should have the right to make these vital determinations for ourselves.”
Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said: “This bill is about patient autonomy and dignity. For over a hundred years, New York law has recognized that adults with mental capacity have the right to refuse life-saving treatment. Morally and legally, they should have the right to end their suffering through medication if that is their own choosing. We had a thoughtful and passionate debate last year when we advanced the bill out of the Health Committee, and I look forward to moving the bill forward again this session towards Assembly passage.”
Assemblymember Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) said: “This compassionate bill ensures that we honor those who fought for legislation to expand end-of-life care options for terminally ill adults with appropriate protections to prevent any type abuse and misuse. Medical aid in dying is an end-of-life option that is a matter of personal freedom and liberty. We need to stop criminalizing medical aid in dying and honor the wishes of terminally ill individuals.”