Audience members visited the William K Sandford Library for an interfaith discussion about end of life options. (Kassie Parisi/Spotlight News)
COLONIE— Three nationally recognized clergy members visited the William K Sandford library in Colonie to host a panel about end of life options, and to voice their support for local and national aid-in -dying initiatives.
The free event, called “Interfaith Dialogue and Perspectives on End of Life Options,” was hosted by the organization Death with Dignity-Albany at the library on Thursday, Sept. 29. The purpose of the event was to educate audience members about end of life options while also advocating for the passage of legislation in the New York State Legislature that would allow terminally ill patients to end their life on their own terms with prescribed medication.
Rabbi David M. Gordis, visiting senior scholar at the University at Albany, Reverend Eric Shaw and William Levering were the panel speakers, and they addressed their opinions on aid in dying initiatives as it applied to their respective faiths.
“I’m here to talk to you all because I am opposed to torture. I am opposed to torture in the way we treat people actively, and in the way we treat people passively. I am apposed to torturing people with pain who don’t have a choice. I am opposed to torturing people with confinement, who don’t have a choice. I am opposed to torturing people with humiliation, who don’t have a choice,” Levering said. “We’re gathering here to enforce a freedom. A freedom from pain. A freedom from humiliation, and a freedom from unwanted restraint.”
He explained that something most religious institutions have in common is their desire to speak for those who are powerless. Aid in dying legislation, Levering said, is one way that power can be given back to those who have had their power taken from them, sometimes at the hands of medical institutions. Aid in dying legislation, he said, would also put power back into the hand of those doctors who would like to be able to grant their patients’ request, but cannot at this time due to fear of consequences.
“We’re not going to legislate morality. We’re going to give options to people” he said. “I know this is a political issue. I hope you can support the legislation. But this is also a personal issue. ”
Gordis said that it was not his intention to advocate for one specific path, but to allow every person to access all options.
“We’re not talking about imposing one or another option. We are saying that in this most poignant, personal moment, each of us facing death, at some point in the course of our lives, should have the options of choosing the sources from which we make the decisions about the quality in our end of life,” Gordis said. “I strongly feel that a person should have the right to call on any authority, on any religious tradition, on any religious functionary, that he or she wishes to, to shape their own perspective. But those who do not choose some religious authority, who do not choose some outside authority, but choose rather the autonomy of their own self, speaking to themselves within themselves, and shaping the option that they want to chose, that should be the freedom of the individual.”
Shaw, who lost his 7 year old son in 2008 after he was diagnosed with cancer, said that the issue of death with dignity has become a very personal issue for him. He said that no matter what a person chooses, the most important thing is for loved ones and others to be present and supportive of the person’s decision.
“He never complained. While the chemo was racing through his body, he never complained,” Shaw said about his son. “While doctors poked and prodded at him, he never complained. But one day, when I had to rush him to the hospital, he said, ‘Daddy, do something.’ Daddy, do something. And I’m here today to let you know that I want to do something. I want to do something today, and I pray that my presence of others will bless those that are dealing with this issue, and that at the end of the road, when they’ve made their decision, that we can be present with them, and demonstrate the love and compassion of God that will give them just that iota of peace.”
Some medical and disability groups such as New York Alliance Against Assisted Suicide and the Medical Society of New York have pushed against the passage of such legislation. Advocates of the disabled have demanded better care for living patients, as opposed to aid in death. Other groups argue that terminal diagnoses are sometimes incorrect, and that the law will cause people to give up on treatment. Opponents also voice concern over assisted suicide becoming a cheap alternative to expensive treatment.
In May, state Assembly Health Committee pushed through the Medical Aid in Dying Act. That bill, which is modeled after Oregon’s Death With Dignity bill, would allow only qualified, terminally ill and mentally capable adults to receive life-ending medication. Two physicians must confirm that the prognosis is indeed terminal. It would require two witnesses to attest that the patient’s request is voluntary.
The bill has safeguards built in. It would allow criminal law prosecution for coercing or forging a request to die, while also ensuring that life insurance payments cannot be denied to the families of those who use the law. It also states that any actions taken within the provisions of the law will not be defined as “suicide” or “assisted suicide.”
The legislation did not make it to the governor’s desk and will be introduced during session again.