Fine Print: Legislators Reintroduce Measure Allowing Assisted Suicides

With Gov. Christie still opposed, debate over emotional and controversial issue may be all that’s possible in this session

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester)
A bill that would allow terminally ill patients to receive a lethal dose of medication ignited one of the most emotionally charged debates of the last legislative session – and that could happen again with reintroduction of the controversial measure.

What it is: The New Jersey Death with Dignity Act, S-382 and A-2270, lays out a series of steps intended to guarantee that terminally ill patients who want to end their life are acting voluntarily.

Those steps include having both the patient’s doctor and a second doctor confirm a diagnosis of terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live. In addition, the patient must sign a statement that he or she is seeking to end his or her life voluntarily and the statement must be witnessed by at least one person who is not related to the patient, is not named as a beneficiary in the patient’s will and is not an employee of the patient’s nursing home. The patient’s doctor would be allowed to list the cause of death as the underlying disease.

Arguments for and against: Supporters argue that the bill protects the dignity of terminally ill patients and should be a fundamental right. Opponents express concern that the bill is being discussed at a time when not all patients have health insurance and that the state should instead focus on providing patients with appropriate end-of-life care, including hospice care.

How it’s changing: The current version of the bill includes a provision that the bill would only go into effect if it’s approved in a statewide referendum, although Assembly sponsor John J. Burzichelli (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) said he plans to drop that from the bill. He explained, “It is the responsibility of the Legislature to act in this area – we’re not an initiative and referendum state.”

What’s happened over the past year: On February 7, 2013, the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee released the measure on a 7-2 vote, with the committee’s Democratic members in favor and the Republicans either opposed or abstaining. Bill supporter Claudia Dowling Burzichelli, the assemblyman’s sister-in-law, gripping testimony at the hearing about how she and other family members faced terminal illnesses. She died three months after the hearing.

After that vote, advocates on both sides of the debate, backed by their contacts with national organizations, reached out to both legislators and reporters to make their case regarding the bill. Ultimately, the measure did not advance in the Senate and was never scheduled for a vote in the full Assembly.

Why the sponsor is encouraged: In May, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a similar bill, allowing that state to join Oregon and Washington in becoming the third state to legalize assisted suicide. In addition, Montana courts have allowed doctors to use the consent of the patient as a defense if they are charged with assisting in a suicide.

Burzichelli said increasing support in other states reflects a national change in public opinion on the issue. “People want control of their circumstances and they want additional options” for ending their lives, he said.

Challenges await: If it’s not voted on directly by residents – like the recent constitutional amendment that raised the minimum wage – then the legislation will need the signature of Gov. Chris Christie, who has said that he’s opposed to the measure.

But Burzichelli said it’s too soon to speculate about what Christie would do if the bill reaches his desk.

“These issues take time to evolve, for people to digest it and for the discussion to evolve,” said Burzichelli, adding that he is hopeful that Christie will support the final version of the bill. “I hope it happens sooner rather than later, because many people would like to have this type of control over their circumstances.”

Burzichelli said he will soon ask Health and Senior Services Committee Chairman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) to schedule another hearing on the bill.