New Jersey legislators are pushing for adoption of a law that would make New Jersey the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow assisted suicide.
Legislation pending in the Assembly and Senate would let a terminally ill patient with less than six months to live receive and self-administer life-ending medication if he or she expressed a wish to die.
The prime sponsor, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, says the bill was written to put the patient in control of the decision to end his or her life, and minimize the potential for pressure from others, such as heirs and health-care providers.
It would amend New Jersey’s criminal code, which since 1978 has made helping another person commit suicide a second-degree crime if death results, and a fourth-degree crime if it does not. Action taken in accordance with the proposed law would be exempt from prosecution under N.J.S.A. 2C:-11-6.
Although the bill in its current form calls for a referendum on assisted suicide, Burzichelli says he intends to strike that requirement, since the legislation concerns a civil-rights issue and as such does not lend itself to a public vote.
Burzichelli says the bill offers an option that might bring reassurance even if it is never used. His staff studied the outcome of the enactment of similar laws in Oregon and Washington, where about one-third of terminally ill people who obtain lethal drugs never follow through and take them.
“That tells me they find comfort in knowing they can [end their lives] if they choose to, but in the end they don’t,” Burzichelli says.
The New Jersey Catholic Conference sees the issue differently, opposing the legislation because it considers suicide immoral, says its director, Patrick Brannigan.
“The legislation would enable people to pressure others to an early death or even cause early death. The Act may also encourage patients with years to live to give up hope,” Brannigan says.
“Catholic doctrine does not mandate futile medical treatments or high-tech interventions for the dying. It supports hospice and palliative care. We do, however, oppose direct, intentional, purposeful taking of human life — one’s own or others,” Brannigan says.
The bill requires a patient seeking a lethal prescription to request it orally to his or her attending physician and reiterate the oral request at least 15 days later. The patient must then make the request in writing, and at least 48 hours must elapse between the signing of the written request and the writing of the prescription.
The patient must sign the form in the presence of two witnesses. At least one must be someone other than a relative, heir or owner, operator or employee of a health-care facility where the patient lives or receives treatment.
The bill requires that the assisted suicide process be voluntary for the doctor, all other health-care providers and the patient.
The attending physician must ensure the patient is a New Jersey resident and is informed about alternatives, such as palliative care, to ending his life; refer the patient to a consulting physician who will provide a second opinion about the prognosis; advise the patient to take the medication when another person is present and not in a public place; and keep records of the assisted suicide.
Any provision in a contract, will, insurance policy, annuity or other agreement is invalid if it conditions or restricts a person’s decision to make a request for assisted suicide, under the legislation. The bill also may not be construed to permit a physician or other person to end a patient’s life by euthanasia, lethal injection or mercy killing, or lower the standard of care to be provided by a health-care professional.
The bill also says any person who takes action in compliance with its provisions shall not be subject to criminal or civil liability if he or she substantially complies in good faith with its provisions.
But a person who coerces or exerts undue influence on a patient to request medication to end the patient’s life is guilty of a crime of the third degree. The bill does not limit liability for civil damages resulting from negligence or intentional misconduct.
The Assembly measure, A-3328, introduced on Sept. 27, was referred to the Health and Senior Services Committee. The Senate version, S-2259, is sponsored by Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex.