Physician-Assisted Suicide Moves Ahead on Uncertain Path in NJ
Death with Dignity Act could see changes before floor vote in Legislature.
New Jersey residents who are terminally ill are closer to being able to choose to end their own life with the help of a doctor.
But while a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide with prescribed medication was released by an Assembly committee on Thursday, it faces a number of obstacles before it becomes law.
Legislators must decide whether to keep a provision in the New Jersey Death with Dignity Act (A-3328) that would require a statewide referendum on whether to approve physician-assisted suicide.
New Jersey would join Oregon and Washington as the third state to approve the measure through a ballot question. The Montana Supreme Court has allowed for judicially monitored assisted suicides.
Another major change being considered by lawmakers would require that a psychologist join a physician in evaluating a patient before approving life-ending drugs.
Even if the bill makes it through the Legislature, it faces a major hurdle in Gov. Chris Christie, who hasn’t taken a public position on the measure.
If the bill does advance, it will have survived at the center of a highly charged debate.
The personal stakes of each of the groups that have taken positions on the measure were on full display during a hearing on Thursday. Testimony focused largely on personal experiences with family members who faced terminal illnesses. It also showed a split among healthcare providers, with the state’s largest doctor’s group opposing the measure while others support it.
While bill supporters said they would attempt to incorporate suggestions from those testifying on the bill, it will be difficult to find a middle ground with opponents.
Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) described the bill in a measured way, saying that it was legal “housekeeping” that raised aspects of other states’ laws for consideration in New Jersey. He said he wants to meet with all interested parties to propose amendments to improve the legislation.
“We’re early on in this,” Burzichelli said, who added that the bill “bubbled up through research” by legislative staff members.
Burzichelli said he had personally favored having the Legislature legalize the practice without a referendum, but agreed with legislative leaders to include the provision for a public vote.
“It’s a part of it as we presently stand,” Burzichelli said. “It’s designed to go to voter referendum.”
If the referendum provision survives the legislative process, the practice stands at least a fair chance of becoming law.
A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in early December showed state voters backed physician-assisted suicide by 46 percent to 38 percent. Most of the difference stemmed from voters’ religious views, according to the poll.
However, most state residents said they hadn’t heard or read anything about the bill.
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