The widow of Marine-turned-anti-euthanasia activist J.J. Hanson is asking lawmakers to vote down a bid to legalize assisted suicide.
On Monday, Kris Hanson arrived at the statehouse in Albany to speak out against a legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients with terminal diagnoses—a practice supporters dub Medical Aid in Dying. Hanson's husband J.J. campaigned across the country against the practice with the Patients Rights Action Fund while outliving his terminal diagnosis by more than three years. J.J. Hanson, a volunteer fireman and Iraq War veteran, succumbed to brain cancer in December 2017, surrounded by his family, including an infant son. Kris Hanson's testimony before the Assembly Committee on Health fulfilled a deathbed promise to her husband.
"My husband, J.J. Hanson, asked me to share the final part of his story and to keep fighting to protect terminal patients like him from the legalization of assisted suicide," Hanson testified on Monday. "We would have missed out on so much if J.J. had been offered, and accepted, the option of assisted suicide."
Bills to legalize assisted suicide have already been defeated in numerous states in 2018, including heavily Democratic Connecticut and Massachusetts, while Hawaii became the seventh state to legalize the practice. Washington, D.C., also allows for assisted suicide, though zero patients have participated and just two of the city's 11,000 doctors have registered to prescribe the lethal medication.
The medical community in New York joined Hanson in rallying opposition to the bill. The Medical Society for the State of New York found that a large majority of its members were worried that assisted suicide would unfairly hurt minorities, the poor, and disabled patients and damage trust between physicians and their patients. Society president Dr. Thomas J. Madejski told the committee that assisted suicide violates the "sacred principle that physicians are dedicated to healing and preserving life, not ending it."
"Although relief of suffering has always been a fundamental duty in medical practice, relief of suffering through shortening of life has not. Moreover, the social and societal implications of such a fundamental change cannot be fully contemplated," Madejski said in his testimony. "Most physicians are deeply troubled by the potential abandonment of a patient by their physician at their time of greatest need of their physician's skill and caring."
New York has become ground zero for the assisted suicide debate in recent years. In 2017, the state's highest court unanimously rejected a lawsuit arguing that the New York constitution guarantees the right to kill oneself. Antisuicide activists hailed it as a victory, but the ruling also emphasized that the judges would not necessarily object if the state legislature passed a bill to sanction the procedure.
"The State also has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicide, a serious public health problem," the court ruled. Judge Eugene Fahey added in a concurring opinion that "Plaintiffs' claims are better addressed to the Legislature."
Kris Hanson urged lawmakers not to give in to pressure from assisted suicide activists or doctors who insist on their ability to accurately predict a patient's remaining days. The bill requires two physicians to declare that a patient has fewer than six months to live, but, Hanson said, "even the most experienced doctors are often wrong." She spoke of her husband's suicidal urges and bouts with depression during his own ordeal and said access to lethal medication would have killed him during such a low point. Instead, he sought counseling. Hanson fears that once assisted suicide becomes legal, profit-driven insurance companies and budget-conscious governmental agencies will steer patients away from life-saving treatment to the more cost-effective suicide pills.
"J.J. understood firsthand how dangerous assisted suicide is to those who are most vulnerable," she said. "Assisted suicide will result in less choice for patients through external pressures, coercion, mistakes, and abuse."
She said lawmakers should turn away from assisted suicide and instead work to improve end-of-life care, citing statistics that found New York ranks 48th in the country in hospice care and has the "second lowest rate of providers per beneficiary."
The committee is scheduled to hold another hearing on assisted suicide in New York City on May 3.