Supporters, opponents express views on ‘Death with Dignity’ bill

TRENTON – Before a packed chamber, passionate testimony was heard by the Assembly Health Committee on a bill enabling a terminally ill person to end their life if they choose to.

The bill A3328/S2259, formally known as the “New Jersey Death with Dignity Act,” would allow an adult facing death within six months to obtain medication that they could take themselves to end their life in what the bill describes as “a humane and dignified manner.”

Under the bill, a person would have to have the capacity to make their own health care decisions, and there would have to be a determination by that person’s physician that they are suffering from a terminal illness.

In addition, the legislation would not take effect unless it was approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

One of the Assembly version’s prime sponsors, John Burzichelli, D-3, Paulsboro, said “this is the right time to have a statewide discussion.”

Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-22) of Plainfield, also supported the bill, saying it’s important to have a continuing discussion on this issue, especially before the full Assembly.

Barbara Coombs Lee of Compassion and Choices supported the bill. She said unlike claims by opponents, “assisted dying,” as she termed it, is still rare. In Oregon, only 0.24 percent of all deaths, or 1 in 500, are assisted deaths.

Others who testified said they had relatives who committed suicide, stemming from depression and severe illnesses. Shelia McLaughlin, of Beverly, who had an aunt who died recently said, “dying with dignity” is an option that should be available to patients.

Teresa Connor, government affairs director of Compassion and Choices, said the Oregon law is a good starting point, but if New Jersey adopts a similar law, it should have more updated procedures in place.

However, Patrick R. Brannigan of the New Jersey Catholic Conference opposes the bill, saying that a 6-month prognosis could be “wildly” off, and that it could increase suicides among service members if they’re suffering from mental illnesses.

“Our duty is to assist them…not kill them,” he said.  

“Medical specialties in pain management can allow us to deal with all pain effectively.”

Marie Tasy of New Jersey Right to Life said just because someone has a terminal illness does not mean they will die in 6 months.

“Some people do beat the odds.”

Tasy said the number of suicides in general in Oregon has increased considerably since 2000. Oregon passed the assisted dying law in 1997.

“Do we really want to follow Oregon’s lead?”

But Committee Chairman Herb Conaway said the “correlation means nothing.”

Among some of the bill’s other provisions:

*A person could not take advantage of this option merely because they are old or disabled;

*There must be at least two witnesses to the person’s request for medication, and one of those witnesses must not be a blood relative;

*If the attending physician believes the patient is suffering from a psychological disorder that impairs judgment, the patient must be referred for counseling;

*The Division of Consumer Affairs in the Department of Law and Public Safety would be involved in proper documentation and oversight of the procedure.

Supporters, opponents express views on ‘Death with Dignity’ bill