One year later, a look at New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying Act

Fifty-seven-year-old Susan Boyce has been suffering from an incurable disease for 15 years, which resulted in her having about 25% lung function. The retired wife and mother of four says in a few years it’s likely that breathing will become extremely unbearable.

“It can be a very slow and terrifying way to go,” she said. “I want the option to be there so that very little, last bit of suffering in my life I could have control over and say, ‘OK, it’s enough.'”

The nonprofit Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life advocacy organization, led a grassroots campaign to pass New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying law, which took effect a year ago.

“What medical aid and dying does is allow them to avoid the very worst, the very last part of the dying process,” the group’s CEO, Kim Callinan, said.

Under the law, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live have the option to request and receive a doctor’s prescription for medication they can decide to take to die peacefully in their sleep if the suffering becomes unbearable.

“In the first year of the law, there have been a dozen people who have used the Medical Aid in Dying Act. Half of them were men and half of them are women. We’ve had 40 health systems and hospices adopt supportive policies. About 65% of the people who participate in medical aid in dying are over the age of 65. The remaining people end up being over the age of 60, so it does skew toward the older age. About eight of 10 people who choose the option of medical aid in dying do so in the comfort of their own home. Typically within 30 minutes the person will fall asleep, their breathing will start to slow down and within a two hour time period they will have died,” Callinan said.

She says in order to take the medication there are strict guidelines that can take time.

“It requires a person to be terminally ill, mentally capable, able to take the medicine themselves. Two physicians have to certify that they meet the eligibility criteria, which includes no abuse or coercion, the person has to be doing it on their own. You also have to have witnesses, so there’s two witnesses,” Callinan said. “On average, in most states, it takes around 45 days from the time the person finds the first doctor who will support them. And we do know that some people are unfortunately not able to make it through the process and that’s why it’s so important that people have those conversations now if this might be an option that you’re interested in.”

She says one of the biggest obstacles for patients is finding a physician to sign off on the medication.

“Nothing about this bill is not making anyone do something that they don’t want to do. It’s just allowing choice for people who might want to consider this option at the end,” said Boyce.