NJ Lawmakers Debate Right to Die Legislation

January 19, 2015 | Health Care, Politics
Steve Sweeney is waiting to call for a vote on the Death with Dignity bill in the Senate until he's sure it will pass.

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Twenty years ago, Assemblyman Tim Eustace’s adopted son Lee died of AIDS.

Eustace knows about end-of-life trauma.

“Anyone that’s suffered through watching one of their family members die a torturous death arrives at the same conclusion. You don’t wanna watch somebody suffer. When people ask, please let me end this, the compassionate choice is to listen to them, hear it through,” he said.

For two years, Eustace has been helping Assemblyman John Burzichelli try to pass a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to self-administer a lethal dose of medicine if two doctors and a psychiatrist approve.

The bill passed the Assembly 41-31 last month.

It passed the Senate Health Committee 5 to 3.

Health Committee Chairman Joe Vitale said he voted yes but is really undecided.

“It came out of my committee. We released it without recommendation, which means the majority of members weren’t supportive but they wanted to give the full Senate an opportunity to consider it,” Vitale said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, another primary sponsor, says he’ll call for a vote in the Senate once he’s sure there are 21 votes to pass it.

“This is a very sensitive bill to a lot of people. It’s a matter of conviction. We’re not gonna strong-arm people. We are just giving the opportunity for all of the people involved to advocate for it,” Sweeney said. When asked how many votes there are, he said, “I haven’t even attempted to count yet.”

Gov. Chris Christie last week said he’s unlikely to sign a right to die bill.

“I have grave concerns about this issue. But as will all things I’ll keep an open mind to read and consider things and listen to people’s opinions but I don’t want to mislead you, I have real concerns about this,” the governor said.

Four states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont and New Mexico — have such laws.

Opponents argue that profoundly disabled people will be encouraged to end their lives prematurely. Same for the chronically depressed.

Supporters say there are safeguards to prevent that.

“The person has to be able to make the choice themselves. If they are so severely disabled they cannot, no one can make it for them,” Eustace said.

Vitale met the widower of Brittany Maynard last week, which made an impression.

“He shared with me his personal experience with his wife and what she experienced at the end of her life, and it was very moving,” Vitale said.

The bill was called the Death with Dignity Act. Supporters changed that to Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill. Opponents call it Death By Doctor. Its fate in New Jersey remains very much up in the air.

Related: Diaz: Death With Dignity Should Be an Option for Patients