NJ Terminally Ill Patients Keep Their Right to Die — Judge Upholds Law
A legal challenge to the state's aid-in-dying law, which allows doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, suffered another blow this week after another state judge dismissed the complaint.
The state's Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act went into effect in August. It was quickly challenged by Yosef Glassman, a doctor who objected to the law on religious grounds. He was joined in the lawsuit by Anthony Petro, a terminally-ill state resident, and pharmacist Manish Pujara, who also opposed the law on moral and constitutional grounds.
A judge at the time halted implementation of the law until that decision was overturned on appeal.
In a 37-page decision this week, Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy dismissed the lawsuit, rebutting each of the plaintiffs' 11 counts and ruling that they had no standing to bring the lawsuit because they could not explain how they would be harmed by the law.
The law is completely voluntary and protects doctors who participate as well as those who decline to participate.
The decision also points out that pharmacists are not required to stock any of the drugs that could be prescribed.
The law allows a terminally ill patient who has been given six months or less to live to obtain life-ending drugs from a doctor who is familiar with their medical history. The patient, who is allowed to change his or her mind at any time, takes the medication on their own.
The patient has to make two oral requests from the doctor 15 days apart as well as make a written request. Two witnesses also have to be present for the patient to sign the decision.
The doctor also has to explain to the patient all their options, such as hospice care and pain management.
Doctors can refer a patient to a mental health professional if they are concerned about the patient's mental state.
The judge said the state "has a legitimate interest, perhaps even a compelling interest, in establishing a safe and effective procedure for qualified terminally ill patients to experience a humane and dignified death."
Kevin Diaz, chief of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, a national organization defending aid-in-dying laws in court, applauded the decision.
"No one's religious beliefs should dictate what healthcare options someone else should have to relieve their suffering at the very end of life," he said Thursday.
New Jersey residents who may one day avail themselves of the law also supported the decision.
"I know it will be give me peace of mind simply having the medication, even if I never use it," said retired social worker Lynne Lieberman, an Absecon resident with metastatic lung cancer.
Laurie Wilcox, a Clark resident who relies on an oxygen tank to breathe because of rheumatoid arthritis that damaged her lungs, said the lawsuit was a "nightmare." Her sister, also a retired nurse, has lung cancer.
"As nurses, we know the limits of modern medicine to relieve suffering, so it's comforting to know that we still have the option of medical aid in dying if hospice and palliative care don’t suffice," she said.
The lawsuit argued that the law violates Article 1, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, which states that all people have the right to life, liberty, property, safety and happiness.
The judge, however, said that language "does not establish a constitutional or fundamental right to protect or defend the lives of others," adding that to interpret it as such would "curtail the rights to privacy of capable terminally ill patients to determine the course of their own medical treatment."
The judge's decision rejected the argument that the law intrudes on the lives or religious beliefs of doctors or pharmacists, saying that the law's provision requiring doctors to transfer their files or pharmacists to refer doctors to another pharmacy if they don’t wish to participate is "minimally burdensome."
The judge's decision also dismissed a separate argument filed by Margaret Dore, an attorney based in Washington state who opposes aid-in-dying laws.
Dore said the law violated a provision of the New Jersey state constitution that prohibits single pieces of legislation from intermingling unrelated topics or being misleading.
She said the law allows for euthanasia and is not limited to dying people, arguing that people with chronic conditions such as diabetes could eventually qualify. She also pointed out that because patients are allowed to have someone communicate on their behalf, that could mean the voluntary nature of the law cannot be assured.
The judge rejected the arguments, pointing to a section of the law that states that aid in dying will not be "considered abuse, neglect, assisted suicide, mercy killing, euthanasia or homicide."