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Quality of life at the end of life

New Jersey Debates ‘Death With Dignity’

A New Jersey legislative panel has advanced a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medications to some terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

The New Jersey Death with Dignity Act, based on a 1994 Oregon law, passed the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee 8 to 4. The bill must pass the full Assembly and Senate before heading to Gov. Chris Christie.

If passed, prospective patients with a life expectancy of six months or less would be required to prove they are capable of making their own end of life decisions. Hospitals and doctors would not be required to participate.

After two verbal requests, patients would submit a written request for the life-ending medication. The request requires the signatures of two witnesses. Fifteen days must pass between the patient’s initial verbal request and the writing of a prescription. Patients would be guaranteed the freedom to rescind their request, and they must self-administer the drug.

“This discussion is about revisiting a statute last looked at in 1978 that never took into account an individual’s right to control their body and their circumstances,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli in a press release. “Like society, medicine, palliative care and hospice services have changed dramatically since then. While there are many choices available right now that may be right for certain people, there is one more choice, not currently available, that deserves an honest discussion.” Burzichelli, a Democrat, sponsored the legislation.

A similar bill advanced to this point in the previous Legislature, but it was never was brought to a vote. Christie’s office declined to comment on the possibility of a veto.

A 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found 46 percent of New Jersey voters supported “Death with Dignity,” while 38 percent opposed it.

The legislation has faced strong opposition from religious and disability-rights groups.

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, calls the legislation “bad medicine.” “Clearly there are ways to alleviate a person’s suffering without eliminating the human being, and that is the path I hope our state will take,” she said. “The bill doesn’t protect patients, there is a lot of room for error. There is no oversight once a medication is prescribed, and it is a recipe for elder abuse.”

Tasy’s concerns are echoed by Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes all forms of aid in dying legislation. Diane Coleman, president and C.E.O., told Life Matters Media she believes that advances in pain medicine have made the legislation unnecessary. “Palliative care options work, and there is no need to cross this line and drastically change the law that can become a risk to so many others,” she said.

New Jersey criminalized the practice in 1978, but physician-assisted suicide is legal in four states: Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana.

One Thought on “New Jersey Debates ‘Death With Dignity’”

  1. The New Jersey assisted suicide bill was brought up for an Assembly vote last week, but withdrawn by its sponsor, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, due to insufficient votes. It may come up again in the fall. Burzichelli said that opponents’ fears “were ‘genuine’ but fueled by emotion.”

    When it comes to emotionality as a barrier to reason, assisted suicide proponents have a much bigger problem than opponents. But that’s understandable. Based on their New Jersey hearing testimony, many saw a loved one die in pain. I was angry too, when my father’s oncologist left him in pain, until he finally turned to hospice and got the palliative care he needed. But whether his doctor was guilty of ignorance, carelessness or arrogance, that’s not a reason to change the law on assisted suicide.

    Recent amendments to the bill, which is patterned after the laws in Oregon and Washington, have not changed the primary reasons to oppose it. Terminal predictions are still unreliable. Treatable depression is still not required to be addressed. One witness to the form can be an heir, and neither needs to actually know the person. Nothing stops any form of coercion or caregiver abuse outside the doctor’s office. There’s no independent witness at the time of death, so self-administration is still not assured. And there are still no enforcement provisions.

    The bill doesn’t prevent abuse, it hides it, and grants blanket legal immunity to the participants in the death. In the midst of a rising tide of elder abuse, legislators have a duty to set aside emotion, and think about all the seriously ill people who don’t have a loving family and need the law to protect them.

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