Life and death on the agenda before NJ Assembly Judiciary Committee

It was life and death, literally, at the Assembly Judiciary Committee Monday. The committee took up the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act before a packed committee room full of supporters and detractors giving somber testimony.  is a sponsor.

“This is not for everyone,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a sponsor of the bill. “In fact, a very small minority of people will likely use it, if you compare the other states that have it legal. Like Washington state is similar to New Jersey in population, less than 300 people requested the prescription, and not all of them take it. This is just a choice.”

New Jersey’s law is modeled after the 20-year-old Oregon law. It allows for mentally-competent, terminally-ill adults to ask their doctor for a prescription for a lethal medication. Safeguards in the bill include a requirement that the request be made in writing, witnessed by two adults, and that a doctor has indicated that the patient has six months or less to live. It’s about compassion, say supporters. But detractors see it a different way.

“You can actually see from the experiences in Oregon that a significant number of those patients who received those prescriptions legally, they have lived beyond six months, that is the compulsory requirement for receiving the prescription. Even just the experience tells us that a lot of the patients who are requesting the prescriptions, do so when they don’t qualify,” said American Academy of Medical Ethics spokesman Matthew Suh.

“If we just simply deleted the provision in our New Jersey criminal statute that forbade assisted suicide, we’d be fine,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll. “I went to Johns Hopkins, all my friends are doctors. I’ve often said that I want my doctors, to tell me at the end of life to say ‘here’s a box of pills. If the pain gets bad, take one. If it gets real bad, take two. But, under no circumstances whatsoever, take the whole bottle because that will kill you.'”

At its core is the question of control, say supporters. They say patients deserve to have the ability to control their lives, more specifically their deaths, as a final exercise of their choice, which, in many cases has been diminished by their physical condition.

“Personally, as someone who has a disability, something that concerns and in some ways, offends me, is the idea that in order to protect people with illness or disability, that we would take their rights away,” said the ACLU’s Ed Barocas.

The bill has made it through the Assembly twice before, but never got a full Senate vote because leaders there knew that Gov. Chris Christie had threatened a veto. Burzichelli says he expects a different result this time around with a different governor. The bill cleared its first hurdle Monday.