Op-Ed: Making the Case for Medical Aid in Dying in New Jersey

Kenneth Schwab | January 26, 2017 | Opinion
There is often a sense of peace that comes when terminally ill patients can maintain their autonomy in end-of-life decision making

Dr. Kenneth Schwab
It has been my honor and privilege to serve as a medical professional in the state of New Jersey for the past several decades, having treated countless patients with a multitude of diseases. I have been involved in the field of biomedical ethics for the better part of the past two decades as well. My experiences as a physician have led me to understand that many of these people, particularly those at end of life, need to maintain their dignity and autonomy. Toward this end, a vital component of end-of-life care is medical aid in dying. I urge the state law makers to vote to pass the Aid Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, so as to allow the states terminally ill residents that option.

Medical aid in dying is a practice in which mentally capable, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live may request medication from their doctor for self administration, if their suffering becomes unbearable, to bring about a peaceful death. This option would allow for a greater focus on patient-centered care, increased dialogue between patients and their doctors, and greater peace of mind for people facing an incurable illness and imminent death. It is my belief that, from ideological and practical perspectives, allowing terminally ill people to have a range of options at the end of their lives is a fundamental right.

While I have encountered a number of doctors in support of and in opposition to medical aid in dying, a 2016 Medscape survey shows that support for medical aid in dying continues to increase among U.S. physicians: 57 percent now support medical aid in dying, while only 29 percent oppose this concept. More and more state medical societies are finding majorities of their membership who support this end-of-life option, and their memberships often prefer that their state’s medical societies take a neutral stance on the issue. As a member of the medical society of the state of New Jersey, I believe it is now time for it to withdraw its long-standing opposition to medical aid in dying. We must help patients weigh the risks, benefits, and quality of life, as they make medical decisions that align with their values and priorities.

Medical aid in dying will become a legal option in New Jersey if the state legislature and Governor Chris Christie opt to pass and sign S-2474, the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which is now awaiting a vote in the state Senate. It has already passed through the General Assembly and the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens’ Committees. This bill, structured after the Oregon law, hasn’t led to a single documented case of abuse or coercion in the 20 years that the state of Oregon has authorized aid in dying. It is also worth noting that a 2015 Rutgers Eagleton poll found that 63 percent of people in New Jersey support medical aid in dying. There was a majority across all demographics and political affiliations, including religious, disabled, and elderly people.

Terminally ill adults who know they have another option if suffering becomes unbearable may feel less anxiety about the dying process, and may be able to better enjoy the time they have left with family and friends. There is a sense of peace that comes with the knowledge that patients maintain their autonomy in their end-of-life decision making.

As a physician, I believe that all terminally ill, mentally capable New Jersey adults, with less than six months to live, should have the option to request a life-ending prescription from their physician, so that they can die peacefully and on their own terms. As a New Jersey resident, I would also wish for the same option, whether or not I ever choose to take advantage of it.