Talking about death is difficult, if not uncomfortable for many people.
Yet, dying in peace when terminally ill has been discussed at the state legislature for years, with people for and against expressing their viewpoints, without any action on what is called the Medical Aid in Dying Act.
The legislation would allow a terminally ill adult who is mentally capable and has less than six months to live to request and receive a prescription drug to end their life instead of suffering. Ten states have passed the legislation, including neighbors Vermont and New Jersey.
Critics, including some state lawmakers, have deemed the bill a version of “assisted suicide” that sends the wrong message.
Proponents said the law has about a dozen safeguards and allows a terminally ill person to die peacefully in their sleep. A Marist College poll in October found nearly 60% of voting New Yorkers support the legislation.
What is clear is that the proposed law is controversial and stalled in the state legislature for more than seven years.
The late Dr. Robert Milch, a surgeon who co-founded Buffalo Hospice some 40 years ago, died in 2021 of cancer. He spent his final days urging lawmakers to pass the Medical Aid in Dying bill.
“My advocacy is based on 50 years of practice,” Dr. Milch said in April 2018 for a video advocating for the law.
When he died in June 2021, his daughter and grandson picked up where he left off by working with the Compassion and Choices New York organization to convince lawmakers to finally pass the legislation.
“You don’t personally have to believe that it’s the best choice for you but don’t forbid it for other people,” said Ari Klein, Dr. Milch’s grandson.
Melissa Milch, the doctor’s daughter, said her father was a pioneer in hospice and palliative care who saw decades of suffering.
“And I’ll never forget, in the weeks from his diagnosis on, he spent time with us, with his family saying goodbye, but he also spent a very good portion of his remaining moments calling lawmakers and imploring that they pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act,” she said.
“No one returned his calls,” Milch said. “I wish I knew why.”
Milch said she would tell lawmakers that they don’t have to believe in the law and they do not have to choose this option if they are ever struck with a terminal illness.
“But please don’t prohibit someone else who is suffering needlessly at the end of their life from having this option,” she said.
News 4 Investigates reached out to every state lawmaker in the western New York delegation to ask them their position on the legislation. Most responded, and the opinions, not surprisingly, varied.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, a Republican, said he does not support the legislation “due to concerns over vulnerable populations – including those combatting depression or other non-end-of-life illnesses.”
Senator Patrick Gallivan, another Republican, said he remains uncomfortable with the legislation.
“Among other things, I am concerned about the inexactness of science, the sufficiency of safeguards to protect vulnerable populations, and whether physicians are adequately trained to ensure the law, if passed, is implemented as intended,” Gallivan said.
Senator Sean Ryan, a Democrat representing Buffalo, declined to discuss the legislation.
Other Democrats, such as assembly members Karen McMahon and Patrick Burke support the legislation.
Monica Wallace, another Democrat representing the Cheektowaga area, said her position is more nuanced, but she does support the intent of the legislation. But she’d like to see more access to existing programs such as hospice and palliative care that she said is being under-used by residents facing terminal illnesses. She has submitted legislation that covers her concerns.
“It’s like, OK, we can have this conversation about the Medical Aid in Dying Act but I think there’s ways we can address deficiencies already that can help mitigate some of the concerns that Medical Aid in Dying is trying to get at.”
Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, provided eight reasons why he does not support the bill. They included other alternatives exist that can address pain, depression and end-of-life issues, such as hospice, and that there “is no assurance that the person contemplating assisted suicide will be mentally competent at the time they actually consume the lethal drugs.”
Corinne Carey, campaign director for the Compassion and Choices New York organization that advocates for the legislation, said the dozen safeguards attached to the legislation includes having the decision reviewed by two doctors before getting approved and ensuring the dying patient is the only one who can make the decision.
“I think it’s important that we understand that opponents have made all kinds of claims about the harms that this law would entail,” Carey said. “But those claims are exactly the same claims that they made in the early 1990s before any state had ever passed a Medical Aid in Dying law, and quite simply, none of those fears has ever come to pass and that’s why we see state after state passing these laws.”
Dr. Milch’s family remain hopeful that state lawmakers will eventually pass the legislation. They both vowed to keep fighting for the legislation in honor of Dr. Milch, who served this community for decades.
“My Dad dedicated his life to this cause – to helping human beings,” Melissa Milch said. “And in the end, we all did what had learned from him, we listened to him.”
Klein said his grandfather, Dr. Milch, promised to take him to Albany to lobby for the legislation, but the Covid-19 pandemic and his cancer cut that opportunity short.
“And so one of the last things I told him was that I’d get the bill passed for him,” Klein said. “That’s how I landed my feet on this project.”