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Panel debates physician-assisted suicide in NY

Quill and McMullin
Dave Burbank/Provided
Dr. Timothy Quill, professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, speaks at Cornell Law School's Death With Dignity panel. To Quill's left is the Rev. Daniel McMullin, director of the Cornell Catholic Community.

As New York state lawmakers consider the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, a Cornell Law School panel debated the legal, moral and ethical aspects of the practice April 14.

A series of bills concerning physician-assisted suicide have been under consideration in the New York State Legislature since early 2015, including the Death with Dignity Act.

“‘Death with Dignity’ is a term that is often used to refer to physician-assisted suicide, which consists of self-administration of a lethal dose of drugs that have been prescribed by a doctor,” said Cynthia Grant Bowman, Cornell professor of law.

These bills all include regulations to safeguard vulnerable groups from abuses under any new law, Bowman said. Among these safeguards, two physicians must diagnose the patient with less than six months to live, the patient must be mentally competent and free from mental illness, the patient must give informed consent, and two witnesses must attest to the patient’s decision to ensure that the decision is completely voluntary, she said.

Dr. Timothy E. Quill, professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, challenged the New York state law prohibiting physician-assisted death in the late 1990s. He argued that abuses in physician-assisted suicide are rare. In Oregon, where physician-assisted death is legal, 1 in 6 terminally ill patients discuss physician-assisted suicide with their families and 1 in 50 discuss it with their doctors, but only 1 in 500 choose to end their life via physician-assisted death, Quill said.

“If someone is on life support, they can choose to stop life support because they do not want to keep living in the circumstances they find themselves,” Quill said. “This is similar to people who ask for assisted death, only we allow the process of ending life support to occur out in the open.

“When somebody stops life support, there’s excellent documentation, there’s consultation, and the best minds are involved to ensure it’s the best option. I think that’s the model we should be going to for assisted suicide.”

Daryl Bem, Cornell professor emeritus of psychology, offered a personal take on the issue. Bem’s wife, Sandy, ended her life in 2014 after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010. Bem explained the painstaking steps they took to place his wife’s mortality in her own hands after she had made the decision to end her life.

“The moral conundrum here, even given that I am in favor of a person’s right to take their own life, is when a person makes an advance decision to end their life, what happens when they no longer have the capacity to act?” Bem said.

Rev. Daniel McMullin, director of the Cornell Catholic Community, argued against physician-assisted suicide.

“Whether this legislation passes or not, I would simply remind men and women that the dignity of each individual is never to be withdrawn. The human person cares for his or her own body but doesn’t have the right to dispose of it by premature death, and the community bears the responsibility for caring for our sick, for sustaining and supporting them with palliative care, and healing them until death intervenes,” McMullin said.

The panel was moderated Jill Miller, adjunct professor of law and director of the Estate Planning Clinic at Cornell Law School.

Emily McNeill ’16 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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