Should NJ allow terminally ill patients to end their lives?
TRENTON — Lawmakers are again considering allowing terminally ill patients in New Jersey to obtain a lethal prescription from their doctors that they could use to end their life.
It’s unclear whether the bill has the votes needed to clear the three hurdles that remain before the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act could reach Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk and whether Murphy would sign it. The bill was advanced by the Senate health committee in a 6-3 vote, though only after two supporters subbed in for senators who have opposed it in the past.
The 90-minute debate included doctors, nurses and other advocates both for and against the idea. There were more people in attendance who were opposed to the idea, including some who weren’t called to testify because of time constraints cited by the committee.
Morristown physician Deborah Pasik said that prolonging the suffering of patients with no hope for recovery is doing them harm in violation of doctors’ Hippocratic oath.
“The most compassionate gift that a doctor can give to a terminal patient who requests it is the choice as to when and how they will die,” Pasik said. “This is peace of mind, and this is priceless.”
The idea that the prescription restores a sense of control to terminally ill patients was a frequent theme at the hearing.
Another was the concern that it would be used by people who are depressed or worried they’re being a burden to their families. Lindsay Tuman, coordinator of a career-mentoring program at the DAWN Center for Independent Living, said the bill raises real fears for people with disabilities.
“This legislation will place more crucial decisions on health care providers, insurance companies and caregivers, leaving individuals with disabilities even more vulnerable,” Tuman said.
Kim Callinan, who was raised in Oradell and is now chief executive officer of the national group Compassion & Choices, said there’s no evidence of abuse or coercion in the seven states and Washington, D.C., where it is already allowed, dating back more than 20 years in Oregon.
“The prescription that people are asking for is quite simply a prescription for peace of mind,” Callinan said.
Nevada doctor Brian Callister, however, said that two of his terminally ill patients were denied experimental treatment coverage by insurers who instead suggested physician-assisted suicide.
“This is not about freedom and autonomy and choice,” Callister said. “This limits your freedom. It limits your access to care. And it decreases your ability to obtain life-saving care.”
Under the bill, adults determined to have less than six months to live would be eligible to obtain medication they could self-administer to end their lives. They would have to ask their doctor twice, at least 15 days apart, and then a consulting physician would have to concur with the medical diagnosis and affirm the patient's decision-making capability.
The person would also have to make one request in writing, signed by two witnesses, at least one of whom is not a relative, entitled to any portion of the patient's estate, a worker at a health-care facility treating the patient or the patient's physician.
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said research shows overall suicide rates are higher in states where physician-assisted suicide is legal for the terminally ill.
“Even if one young person now sees suicide as an acceptable way out of their depression or other condition because of the passage of this bill, then I ask you: Is this a public policy worth pursuing?” Deo said.
However, suicides have been increasing in many states, and the study cited says the association isn’t statistically significant. Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the bill now before the Legislature isn’t about depression.
“This is about someone being given a death sentence, going to a doctor and they’re saying that you have six months to live. It’s not the same as suicide,” Sweeney said.
In 2014 and 2016, the proposal was passed by the Assembly with the minimum numbers of votes needed, 41. Both times it was released by the Senate health committee, then never got a vote by the full Senate before the end of the legislative sessions and had to restart the process.
An additional step has been added to the process that wasn’t needed in the last two sessions: The bill, S1072, has been "second referenced" to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for a vote rather than sent to the Senate floor.
An Assembly committee has advanced the bill (A1504) this session, but the full Assembly has not yet voted on it.